Commonwealth Care program faced budget cutback last year
By Kay Lazar, Globe Staff | February 26, 2010
Massachusetts’ exclusion of thousands of legal immigrants from state-subsidized health coverage is unconstitutional and should be struck down by the courts, according to a lawsuit filed yesterday by several of the affected immigrants.
The lawsuit charges that the state’s Connector Authority and its executive director, Jon Kingsdale, violated the immigrants’ right to equal protection under the state and federal constitutions when the administrators last year cut their health coverage through the Commonwealth Care program because of a tight state budget.
The Connector oversees the state’s 2006 landmark health law that created Commonwealth Care, which provides lower-cost insurancefor low-income residents. Dick Powers, a spokesman for the Connector, said the authority had no comment on the lawsuit.
“You can’t violate people’s constitutional rights just because you don’t have the funds,’’ said Matt Selig, executive director of Health Law Advocates, a Boston-based public interest law firm that is assisting the immigrants in the suit.
Last year, about 26,000 immigrants lost their coverage after lawmakers eliminated $130 million in funding to help balance the state’s budget.
The Legislature ultimately restored about a third of the money, and the immigrants were given stripped-down health care plans with significantly higher copayments for medications and other treatments.
Since then, 8,000 more legal immigrants became eligible but have been denied coverage in the plans because the Legislature capped enrollment when it voted last summer.
Among those unable to get coverage is Dorothy Ann Finch of Boston,a 51-year-old immigrant from Zimbabwe with college degrees in psychology and business management, who was a project manager in London before immigrating to the United States in 2006, according to the lawsuit.
Finch was not offered health insurance by her employer here, the suit says, because she worked part time.
So she applied for and was accepted into Commonwealth Care, but the enrollment process was not completed before July 2009, when the Legislature voted to terminate coverage for the immigrants and capped enrollment in the new, stripped-down program.
“This event turned my life upside down,’’ Finch said in an affidavit filed with the lawsuit.
She is a diabetic who suffers from oral health infections, vision loss, and kidney and heart problems, according to the suit, and she has been unable to afford other insurance.
“I cannot hold liquid in my mouth because of my infected jaw,’’ Finch said in her affidavit. “I am afraid to receive medical treatment because I cannot pay the bills.’’
Another plaintiff in the suit, identified as 45-year-old Jane Doe, a licensed architect from the Philippines with a master’s degree in building science, has breast cancer and has been unable to find cancer specialists from the list provided to immigrants in the state’s stripped-down health plan.
“I have searched on the new plan’s website, and I called for assistance,’’ Doe said in her affidavit. “I finally found a GYN in Norwood but with a waiting list. I cannot find a medical oncologist, and I am worried about my health care.’’
The lawsuit estimates that the Commonwealth has saved more than $80 million by cutting the immigrants’ health coverage.
Lawmakers have said they were reluctant to cut immigrants’ coverage, but made the choice because they are more expensive for the state to insure: The federal government does not chip in for their care the way it does for others who are US citizens.
Through a spokesman, Senator Steven Panagiotakos, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Representative Charles Murphy, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said it was unfortunate that immigrants have to sue the state’s Connector Authority, especially because Governor Deval Patrick and his administration have fought hard to retain coverage for the group.
But she said the immigrants could not legally sue the Legislature.
“These people are their neighbors, they pay taxes, they are part of the fabric,’’ Millona said. “But they are being separated because of their immigration status.’’
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.