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Pacific Islanders Again Eligible for Health Coverage

Earlier this year, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill that will help low-income citizens of Pacific Island nations get health insurance. (Oregon DOT/Flickr)
Earlier this year, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill that will help low-income citizens of Pacific Island nations get health insurance. (Oregon DOT/Flickr)
November 3, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Open enrollment for healthcare plans has begun, and for the first time in two decades low income Pacific Islanders in Oregon are eligible for coverage as well.

Earlier this year, low income citizens of the Compact of Free Association, or COFA, nations of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau gained health coverage under the COFA Healthcare Premium Assistance Program, passed unanimously by Oregon lawmakers.

Welfare reform in 1996 had barred COFA citizens from health services such as Medicaid. Joe Enlet, senior policy analyst and community liaison with the Health Equity Initiative, said the new legislation is the first of its kind in the nation.

"Oregon is the only one that actually has a premium assistance program that not only covers premiums but also helps to pay for co-pays and pays for medication as well,” Enlet said. “So Oregon is breaking new ground."

Events are planned throughout the open enrollment period to help eligible COFA citizens in Oregon enroll in a health plan - including an event Thursday at Northwest Family Services in Portland from noon to 6 p.m.

Oregon has the third-largest COFA population in the nation.

The COFA Alliance National Network and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon introduced the premium-assistance bill and worked to see it passed. David Anitok is lead community organizer for CANN, which will host 13 events across the state to help people sign up for the program. He said before the bill was passed, members of the community had few healthcare options, often relying on checkups at free clinics before being referred somewhere else.

"They get referred to an emergency service, which is the only service again they're eligible for," Anitok said. "And based on the case there's been folks that have been in the emergency and rang up a couple thousand dollars, up to $50,000 bills, and unable to pay for it.”

Residents of COFA countries are allowed to live and work in the United States because of the military testing of nuclear weapons near their home islands during the Cold War. Enlet said Oregon lawmakers felt they were righting a historic wrong with this program.

"But to me, the bigger victory is actually that we are heard, that people are not invisible, that they're somebody, and that people are beginning to see and hear our story,” Enlet said.

Information on enrollment events is available at

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR