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Advocates ask SJC to call health care exclusion unlawful

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / May 24, 2011

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Advocates asked a single justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court yesterday to declare the state’s exclusion of thousands of legal immigrants from subsidized health coverage unconstitutional.

The motion was filed two weeks after the full court ruled that the exclusion most likely violates the state’s constitution. It also comes just days after the Senate released its proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year without including any money for expanding services for the immigrants.

In an interview with the Globe after the budget was released, Senator Stephen M. Brewer, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the Senate would reinstate legal immigrants to the full state subsidized health plan when a court tells lawmakers they have to.

The motion filed on behalf of the immigrants by Health Law Advocates, a Boston public interest firm, noted Brewer’s comments.

“Expedited action on this motion is required in light of the fact that the policy branches of state government have indicated that they will take no steps to provide relief to the class unless and until this Court has acted,’’ it stated.

But Health Law Advocates hedged its bets in case the Legislature doesn’t provide funding, asking the court to retain jurisdiction in the case “so that the plaintiffs, who have prevailed, are not denied the opportunity for full relief if further court orders do become necessary.’’

“All the cards are on the table,’’ said Matt Selig, Health Law Advocates’ executive director. “It’s time for the issue to be resolved without further delay.’’

Dick Powers, a spokesman for the Connector Authority, which administers the state-subsidized Commonwealth Care program, declined comment. After the Legislature slashed $130 million in funding for immigrant health care in 2009 to help balance the budget, the Connector transferred approximately 26,000 immigrants from Commonwealth Care into a stripped-down Bridge program it created for them.

Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, has filed a budget amendment that would restore full benefits to an estimated 40,000 legal immigrants — those who are in the Bridge program or have been shut out because of a cap on enrollment due to limited funding.

Senator James B. Eldridge, an Acton Democrat and a former legal aid attorney who worked in Lowell and Lawrence, is a cosponsor.

“I am a strong believer that everyone in Massachusetts should have access to health care,’’ Eldridge said. “When Massachusetts first passed the 2006 health care law, we extended health care to legal immigrants,’’ he said. “In light of the recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling, I think they will eventually be restored, so let’s restore those benefits now.’’

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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