BOSTON (Sept. 28, 2011) — Today, members of Asian American Center for Advancing Justice—Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), Asian Law Caucus and Asian American Institute—filed an amicus brief with Massachusetts’ highest court supporting legal immigrants who sued the state for unlawfully cutting off their health insurance subsidies in 2009.
Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Care health insurance program provides health insurance premium subsidies to uninsured state residents who are without employer-sponsored insurance, are ineligible for other state programs, and have household incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2009, Massachusetts passed a statute that excluded nearly 30,000 legal immigrants from the program by restricting eligibility to those who met criteria under the federal welfare reform law known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Some who qualified were placed in a less comprehensive and less affordable “bridge” program, but several thousand were excluded entirely from coverage.
“Massachusetts argues that it can discriminate on the basis of national origin because it is trying to further policy goals set by the federal government,” said Jacinta S. Ma, deputy director of AAJC. “Under these circumstances, Massachusetts cannot rely on the federal government’s interest and must make its own determination, taking into consideration its own constitutional protections for equal protection whether the state’s action is justified under the strictest scrutiny.”
In February 2010, the public interest firm Health Law Advocates filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the immigrants excluded from Commonwealth Care. Members of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice filed an amicus brief in October 2010 to argue that the law’s classification based on alien age or immigration status should trigger the strictest standard of judicial review. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled this May that strict scrutiny review must be applied to the classification.
In the current stage of the litigation, the court will determine the constitutionality of Massachusetts’ law. The state must show under the strict scrutiny standard that it had a “compelling interest” in excluding legal immigrants from Commonwealth Care. The amicus brief debunks the assertion that a compelling interest for purposes of a federal law must be compelling for the purposes of Massachusetts’ law. Here, the court has an independent duty to assess the state’s interests under the Massachusetts, not federal, constitution.
“Massachusetts’ justifications for excluding resident legal immigrants from health care coverage are not compelling and are based on unfounded assumptions that the policy will promote self-reliance among its immigrants,” said Doreena Wong, director of APALC’s Health Access Project. “Access to affordable quality health care is critical for sustaining the productivity and well-being of individuals and communities.”
Daniel Floyd, Elaine Kim, Minae Yu and Jordan Bekier from the Los Angeles office of law firm Gibson, Dunn &Crutcher LLP provided pro bono assistance on the amicus brief, which was joined by the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and National Health Law Program.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear the case, Finch v. Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority, on Oct. 6.