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Suit Seeks to Restore Immigrants' MaineCare Benefits
04/19/2012   Reported By: Keith Shortall

The state Department of Health and Human Services has been targeted by a lawsuit in federal court that seeks to restore medical coverage for some 500 immigrants in Maine. The suit, brought by Maine Equal Justice Partners and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation, was filed today on behalf of a Fort Fairfield man who lost his health care benefits while battling cancer.

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The suit was brought on behalf of 65-year-old Hans Bruns of Fort Fairfield, a German citizen who was granted lawful permanent residency status in 2007. Bruns began receiving full MaineCare benefits in late 2010, when he was determined to be disabled. But less than a year later, he was told by the state that his coverage was being terminated, as Maine's law had changed and now required legal immigrants to wait five years to qualify for MaineCare benefits.

In the meantime, Bruns attorneys say he has been diagnosed with a rare and painful form of cancer, which is potentially fatal.

"Han's life hangs in the balance today, but we know that there are many, many other Maine residents who are also wrongly being denied access to necessary medical care," says Jennifer Archer, one of Bruns's attorneys who are challenging the five-year waiting period provision passed by the Legislature last year.

"It's our belief that law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution," Archer says. "And we're asking the court to order the Department of Health and Human Services to restore health insurance coverage for Hans and other individuals like him."

Zach Heiden of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine says the law unfairly singles out one segment of the population, and denies them benefits. "We claim Maine has discriminated against a large number of people here based solely on their status as immigrants, and that's prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. It's been prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause since that was adopted in the late 19th century."

And there is precendent that the federal court can turn to in considering this particular challenge, says Jennifer Archer, as similar restrictions in several other states have already been overturned.

"The states that come to mind that have already addressed the issue include Massachussetts, Maryland and the District of Hawaii," she says.

"And the courts are certainly going to look at what other states have done and what has happened in other courts," Heiden says. "But each of these challenges is a challenge to a state program, and each of those state programs is organized a little bit differently."

Maine Equal Justice Partners says the estimated savings to the state of the five-year waiting period was over $2 million a year, but actually saved far less than that.

The House chair of the Leigslature's Health and Human Services Committee, Republican Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess says she hasn't seen the suit, and doesn't know what the financial impact to the state might be if it's successful.

"Well, I think it's an interesting point that they brought forward, and good for them for doing that," she says. "And it's one way to find out clarification on these different specific areas we've been dealing with in the budget."

The lawsuit seeks an injunction to restore benefits for Bruns and about 500 other resident immigrants while the changes are challenged.

His attorneys say that Bruns is currently receiving basic care for his condition through the state's bad debt and charity care law. He is not eligible for assistance with the cost of travel from his home to Presque Isle for treatment, or for coverage of prescription drugs, nursing or other care, which may become necessary.

The Maine Attorney General's Office declined comment on the suit.



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