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Massachusetts SJC Burns Commonwealth Care “Bridge” Health Care Program: It Violates Legal Immigrants’ Constitutional Rights

published January 07, 2012

By Author - LawCrossing

( 3 votes, average: 3.3 out of 5)

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Justice Robert Cordy wrote, in what was a unanimous ruling: “The discrimination against legal immigrants ... violates their rights to equal protection under the Massachusetts Constitution. We recognize that our decision will impose a significant financial burden on the Commonwealth ... If the plaintiffs' right to equal protection of the laws has been violated by the enactment of [the law], then it is our duty to say so.”

In 2009, in an attempt to balance the state budget, some 30,000 legal immigrants lost their health care coverage. These individuals were deemed by the federal government as “aliens with special status”, as they had been permanent legal residents for less than five years. Prior to losing their benefits, they had been covered via Commonwealth Care, which is a state-run insurance program offering extensively subsidized insurance for residents with low incomes.

Though Governor Deval Patrick was opposed to taking away immigrants' health coverage, and came up with a drastically reduced health care program dollar wise, which became known as the Commonwealth Care Bridge Program, the court ruled against it, saying it unfairly discriminates against legal immigrants.

The suit was brought by resident Dorothy Ann Finch, along with other residents. The suit was also supported by various immigrant advocates, civil liberties groups and health care consumer groups.

State lawyers put forth the argument that the new health insurance program was intended to “further national immigration policies that discourage illegal immigration and promote “self-sufficiency among aliens.”

In response, Cordy wrote: “The appropriation arose directly out of an unforeseen revenue shortfall in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The proponents of [the program] repeatedly invoked fiscal concerns, while failing to articulate any interest whatsoever in national immigration policy. Fiscal considerations alone cannot justify a State's invidious discrimination against aliens.”

Matt Selig, executive director of Health Law Advocates was quoted as having said in a recent interview: “This is a major victory for legal immigrants in the commonwealth, no question about it. It vindicates their constitutional right to equal protection. Our expectation is the legislature will provide the funding to enable them to enroll in Commonwealth Care.”

And while the victory indeed deserves to be celebrated, sadly, the story of Brazilian native Samuel Goncalves illustrates the harsh consequences of stripping legal immigrants of health benefits. He found out in the spring of 2010 he would no longer receive subsidized health benefits. Then, when he attempted to get coverage under the Bridge program, he was informed he couldn't continue to see the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital. They had removed cancerous parts of his lungs and he had been under their care since. In the meantime, the Goncalves fought the decision over several months, and when finally, he went for a check-up, the cancer had returned, this time in his liver. Samuel died in October, aged 23.

It seems much time, anguish and expense could be saved by learning from the lessons of slavery and segregation, and applying the wisdom gained – and it appears the SJC is doing just that. Sadly, though, thousands of people have had to suffer while the wheels of justice grind through a case that should never have been necessary in the first place; a case that clearly demonstrates what is the plain and simple truth: legal immigrants are people, too. Treat them as such.

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