Updated March 26, 2018
Governor Inslee signed a bill to expand health care coverage for Washingtonians from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia on March 22, 2018.
The Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) would like to acknowledge Governor Inslee and legislators for their commitment to improving the health and well-being of all Washingtonians. The Commission extends its appreciation to the COFA Alliance National Network, the Children’s Alliance, the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, the Pacific Islander Health Board, and students, educators, and community health advocates from across the state for their support to pass this legislation.
The Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs acknowledges that Washingtonians from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia should have access to affordable healthcare and has made it a priority to improve health equity for Pacific Islanders living in Washington under the Compact of Free Association (COFA).
The Freely Associated States are sovereign nations previously under the administrative control of the United States. Since 1986, the Compact of Free Association (COFA) between the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (Chuuk, Kosrae, Yap, Pohnpei), and the United States allows COFA citizens to serve in the U.S. military and enter, lawfully reside, and work in the U.S. in exchange for providing the U.S. exclusive military control of the region.
When the Compacts were originally signed, COFA migrants were eligible for Medicaid and other federal programs. Despite paying state and federal taxes, these migrants were excluded from benefits as a consequence of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996.
Currently, COFA migrants have limited access to healthcare benefits in the U.S., which perpetuates health inequities.
- Washington State has the second-largest population of Kosraeans and the third-largest population of Palauans and Marshallese people in the U.S. according to the 2010 U.S. Census. COFA migrants reside in Auburn, Everett, Federal Way, Spokane, and Vancouver.
- The U.S. conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958. High levels of radioactive fallout contaminated the region, which continues to produce measurable radiation levels above naturally occurring background levels according to a Columbia University study.
- Marshallese people suffer from high rates of cancer and diabetes. According to the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, 24 percent of Marshallese in the U.S. were uninsured.
- The Federated States of Micronesia has a higher per-capita enlistment rate in the U.S. military than any U.S. state and had more than five times the national per-capita average of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008 according to a Christian Science Monitor 2010 article.
At the Commission’s November 2015 board meeting, the board voted to make health equity for COFA Islanders a legislative priority for the Commission. The Commission recognizes that the legal non-immigrants living in Washington under the Compact of Free Association are in need of timely and cost-effective healthcare.
- CAPAA staff met with the COFA Alliance National Network to learn about their achievements in Oregon to provide affordable healthcare to COFA islanders.
- During the 2016 legislative session, Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos introduced HB 2986, Concerning Health Care for Pacific Islanders Residing in Washington under a Compact of Free Association.
- The State Board of Health and the Governor’s Interagency Council on Health Disparities conducted a Health Impact Review for HB 2986 at the request of Representative Santos.
- Senator Murray co-sponsored federal legislation S. 1301, Restoring Medicaid for COFA Migrants.
- In April 2016, Oregon passed legislation that created a Compact of Free Association (COFA) Premium Assistance Program that provides free health insurance for low-income citizens of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau who live in Oregon under the compact.
- CAPAA hosted a community meeting for COFA Islanders in Auburn on October 1, 2016 and in Spokane on October 22, 2016. Members from the COFA Alliance National Network spoke about their legislative achievements in Oregon and community members shared their concerns and experiences.
- During the 2017 legislative session, Representative Sharon Tomiko Santos and Senator Rebecca Saldaña introduced HB 1291 and SB 5683 to improve health equity and health care access for Pacific Islanders residing in Washington under a Compact of Free Association. SHB 1291 passed the House 51-47, but did not reach the Senate floor for a vote.
- The Commission met with Marshallese and Chuukese community members in Olympia on APA Legislative Day in February 2017.
- The Children’s Alliance included passing SB 5683 and HB 1291 among its top priorities for the 2018 legislative session.
- Governor Inslee’s 2018 supplemental budget proposal included $2.6 million for a COFA premium-assistance program to improve health care access for an estimated 2,600 low-income individuals living in the state under the Compact of Free Association.
- A Marshallese Community Health Forum was held in Spokane in December 2017 to discuss historical and current issues impacting the health of the Marshallese community and their need for access to affordable health insurance in Washington state.
- The Legislature passed SSB 5683 on March 5, 2018.
- Governor Inslee signed SSB 5683 on March 22, 2018.
- WA Governor Signs Pacific Islander Health Bill (Spokane Public Radio)
- Visiting Olympia, Marshallese celebrate health care benefits (Spokesman-Review)
- Nuclear trauma still fresh for Seattle’s Marshallese community on 64th anniversary of Bikini Atoll tests (International Examiner)
- Senate backs health care aid for Marshallese (Spokesman-Review)
- Bill Moves Subsidized Health Care Closer For Spokane’s Marshallese Residents (Spokane Public Radio)
- Spokane Representative Works to Get Health Care for Local Marshallese Community (Spokane Public Radio)
- Pacific Island nationals in Washington could get health coverage help (Seattle Globalist)
More Information & Resources
- Washington Public Assistance for persons from the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau (Northwest Justice Project)
- Fact Sheet for Assisters: Helping COFA Migrants Enroll in Coverage (Office of Minority Health)
- Oregon COFA Premium Assistance Program
- COFA Toolkit (UW Jackson School of International Studies Task Force)
- Key Facts on Medicaid Restoration for COFA Migrants (APIAHF)
- Effect of U.S. Health Policies on Health Care Access for Marshallese Migrants (U.S. National Library of Medicine)
- Healing and solidarity with the Marshallese community (Burke Museum)
- The Marshall Islands are Disappearing (NY Times)
- A ground zero forgotten: The Marshall Islands, once a U.S. nuclear test site, face oblivion again (Washington Post)