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Left Out on Dental Care, Pacific Islanders Seek Coverage

An Oregon Senate bill would give low-income Pacific Islanders in the U.S. under the COFA treaty access to dental care.  (domoyega/iStockphoto)
An Oregon Senate bill would give low-income Pacific Islanders in the U.S. under the COFA treaty access to dental care. (domoyega/iStockphoto)
April 17, 2017

SALEM, Ore. – Denied access to Medicaid more than 20 years ago, low-income Pacific Islanders in Oregon are gaining their coverage back.

People here under the Compact of Free Association, or COFA treaty from the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau are granted legal status because the U.S. tested nuclear weapons near their home islands during the Cold War.

Last year, Oregon became the first state to cover residents once again, but dental care was left out. Senate Bill 147 would rectify that.

David Anitok, co-founder of the COFA Alliance National Network, says without dental coverage, these residents end up using emergency rooms and free clinics to get oral care.

"They provide cleaning and some base needs, but then when it really comes to what they need to operate on for oral care, they refer them to other places – only to get denied or potentially get through with the help of charity programs and whatnot," he relates.

SB 147 passed the state Senate unanimously and is now in the House Committee on Health Care.

Low-income COFA residents were stripped of Medicaid eligibility under President Bill Clinton's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in 1996.

While Oregon is one of the few states taking care of COFA individuals, the community faces larger threats on the national level.

The GOP's recent attempt to overhaul health insurance would have reclassified COFA residents, making them ineligible for health care tax credits.

Joe Enlet, a policy analyst with the Health Equity Initiative, says COFA individuals' status is dependent on a treaty, and there's fear the rules might change under President Donald Trump.

"We don't know how the Trump administration would honor that or enforce the laws around that, because our islanders are still deportable,” he states. “So, we're just in this state of not knowing what the future holds for us."

Anitok says it's important for COFA residents to tell their stories and make their voices heard on issues that affect them.

"It requires efforts of the village and so, I'd strongly encourage our communities from the COFA populations – it is important that we continue to educate ourselves and raise our voices in some of these concerns," he advises.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR