Congress Approves Medicaid Access for Marshall Islanders

The relief package restores Medicaid access to migrants who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Marshallese wearing masks
Courtesy: Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese

Contained within the nearly 5,600 pages of a federal COVID-19 relief bill is a promise of Medicaid access for the Marshallese community.

“It’s a huge milestone for us because we’ve been fighting for over 20 years,” says Melisa Laelan, executive director of Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese.

With this legislation, Medicaid will be available to citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau. Under the Compacts of Free Association, citizens from these nations are given free entry to the U.S. in exchange for military access to their ocean territories.

While COFA migrants can live and work in the U.S., they lost Medicaid coverage under the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The new legislation corrects a wrong that was done, Laelan says. 

“This is fixing the injustice that really caused a lot of pain for this community and a lot of death,” she says. “People did not realize how bad it is until COVID hit.”

Marshall Islanders have higher rates of some adverse health outcomes because of long-standing systemic factors such as poverty, poor access to care, and a nuclear bomb testing program during the Cold War, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic has exacerbated the issue. 

The CDC analyzed the Hispanic and Marshallese communities in Benton and Washington Counties from March through June 2020. The report found the COVID-19 mortality rate among the Marshallese population was 65 times higher than the rates among their white counterparts.

State Representative Megan Godfrey is a Democrat serving the state’s 89th District, which covers a portion of Springdale, home to one of the largest populations of Marshallese outside of the Marshall Islands. Access to Medicaid has been the most important issue for her Marshallese constituents.

“As a state representative this was a federal issue, but one that I was really watching and following closely, but also looking for solutions at the state level because having this coverage, having Medicaid access to our Marshallese neighbors is so vital that we have been collaborating to see what we could do at the state level if it wasn’t solved at the federal,” Godfrey says.

Her predecessor, former Rep. Jeff Williams, and fellow Springdale Republican Sen. Lance Eads, worked on an effort that helped Marshallese children receive health care coverage under the ArKids First program. Access to the program began in 2018.

“It’s been a huge help and I think our community is super grateful for that extended coverage and it also highlighted the need to continue to expand to adults in the community as well,” she says.

The legislation passed by Congress is now headed to the president’s desk to be signed into law. 

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.