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Congress Restores Medicaid To Pacific Islanders In U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Buried in the $900 billion COVID relief package is Medicaid restoration for thousands of Pacific Islanders living in the U.S. People from the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands qualify under a compact of free association. That compact allows citizens of those nations to legally reside here after the U.S. military tested nearly 70 nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands in the 1940s and '50s.

As Jacqueline Froelich with member station KUAF in Fayetteville, Ark., reports, the restoration of Medicaid benefits comes at an important time.

JACQUELINE FROELICH, BYLINE: Dr. Sheldon Riklon has had a busy year treating uninsured Marshallese for all sorts of ailments, like diabetes and hypertension. It's personal for him. He's from the Marshall Islands and came to the U.S. to help other islanders who've settled here in northwest Arkansas. Many work in meatpacking plants, and Riklon says his uninsured patients typically don't seek medical care.

SHELDON RIKLON: Unless they are really sick. Then, they will go to urgent centers, and many a times, to the emergency rooms - they go to the hospitals. And as we all know, as you go to these hospitals or emergency rooms, the bills are very high, very costly for the patients and also for the health care systems as well.

FROELICH: That will soon change. Of the estimated 100,000 Pacific Islanders living in the U.S. under the compact, low-income individuals and families will now qualify for Medicaid, originally granted to them in 1986 but inadvertently stripped a decade later during welfare reform. U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, has pushed for years to have that benefit reinstated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAZIE HIRONO: As part of our compacts to make sure that when they do come to our country that they are afforded the kinds of protections that they should have. And that is why this elimination of their eligibility for Medicaid was such an egregious error.

ELDON ALIK: A lot of our people are sick.

FROELICH: That's Eildon Alik, consul general of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. He assists over 12,000 Marshallese who've moved here from their impoverished island archipelago to the mid-South.

ALIK: To try to, you know, prolong their life, trying to seek medical care. I think they're just very fortunate that the U.S. government has now reinstated our Medicaid because, you know, we don't want any more people to die.

FROELICH: The numbers are staggering. From March to July, cases among Marshallese residents in Arkansas where 400% higher than the general population, and it's gotten even worse in the past few months. That's why Melisa Laelan, director of the nonprofit Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, says the restoration of these health benefits couldn't come soon enough.

MELISA LAELAN: It was kind of like the moment of silence - almost like a funeral - because we've lost so many people.

FROELICH: Now that these Pacific Islanders have Medicaid once again, Laelan hopes this will ease what's been called a Marshallese tidal wave of suffering.

For NPR News, I'm Jacqueline Froelich in Fayetteville, Ark.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN GAUFFIN'S "BIGTOOTH ASPEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.