Medicaid restored to Marshallese under new COVID-19 relief bill

State News

SPRINGDALE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) eligibility will be permanently restored to people living in the United States under the Compacts of Free Association (COFA) as part of the bipartisan COVID-19 relief deal.

The COFA treaty covers citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.

Despite paying taxes, COFA citizens lost access to Medicaid, CHIP, and other assistance programs after Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.

The new legislation, slated for a vote in Congress on Monday, was celebrated by local COFA leaders on a virtual call on Sunday night. The group plans to hold a virtual press conference once the bill is signed.

“This is a historical moment for all COFA citizens living in the United States,” said Melisa Laelan, executive director of Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese. “For over 25 years, we have suffered because of health inequity. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the gruesome health injustices that we COFA communities recognized, but the rest of the world ignored.”

The Covering Our FAS Allies Act (H.R.4821 and S.2218) was led by Senator Mazie Hirono and Representative Tony Cardenas. Representative Steve Womack of Arkansas was one of the first Republicans to support the legislation, according to the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese.

“As a physician for more than 20 years, and a member of the Marshallese community in Arkansas, I’ve seen firsthand the devastating health effects on COFA citizens who are barred from accessing health care,” said Dr. Sheldon Riklon, a Marshallese family physician in Northwest Arkansas. “It has only gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic when we’ve lost far too many loved ones. Seeing our communities regain access to health care gives me hope for our future when our communities can finally get the care they need and deserve.” 

There are at least 100,000 COFA citizens in the United States, including 12,000 living in Arkansas.

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