The government of the Marshall Islands is invoking the toll of the coronavirus pandemic to lobby recalcitrant Republicans for a fix to a decades-old US law that inadvertently cut off federal health benefits for tens of thousands of islanders living in the United States.
The Pacific island nation, along with Micronesia and Palau, signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986 that allowed its citizens to come live and work in the United States and its territories. As lawfully present migrants, they were eligible for the Medicaid program — until a 1996 welfare law accidentally altered their status.
With the compact up for renewal in 2023 and the coronavirus ravaging the migrant community, the Marshall Islands has been stepping up its case to change the law. More than 350 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the Marshallese community in the United States, lobbyists for the Marshall Islands have told Congress, and at least 20 fatalities.
Democrats led by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) have repeatedly introduced legislation to fix the problem, including in this Congress. The provision made it into the $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill that passed the House in May, but the package is stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Now Marshall Islands lobby firm Akin Gump has dispatched a vice-chairman of the Republican National Committee’s finance committee to try to get Republicans on board. Geoff Verhoff, who has been registered to lobby for the Marshall Islands since 2017, emailed the office of Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) earlier this month asking him to “weigh in on and possible co-sponsor” the Medicaid fix.
“In Arkansas, over 200 Marshallese have tested positive for COVID-19 and five people have died,” Verhoff wrote. “As you know, the RMI [Republic of the Marshall Islands] is a former U.S. territory and remains one of our strongest allies.”
Boozman has introduced Marshall Islands-friendly legislation in the past, including a 2019 concurrent resolution “recognizing the rich history, heritage, and strategic importance of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Marshallese population residing in the United States.” That resolution was co-sponsored by Arkansas’ Republican junior senator, Sen. Tom Cotton.
Some 94,000 compact migrants live and work in the United States and its territories, according to 2018 Census data, up 68 percent from a decade earlier. Arkansas has the fourth-largest population, with almost 6,000.
Verhoff’s email followed up on a letter Marshall Islands Ambassador Gerald Zackios.
“The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is proud of our special and unique relationship with the United States,” Zackios wrote. “Through our Compact of Free Association, the U.S. has full authority and responsibility for RMI national security and operates the preeminent Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on our Kwajalein Atoll.”
Marshallese citizens serve disproportionately in the US armed forces and the island nation votes in lockstep with the United States at the United Nations.
“Our reinstatement in the federal Medicaid program,” Zackios went on, “is critical not just from a public health perspective but also as a basic matter of diplomacy to honor the terms and spirit of our Compact.”