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As relief stalls, restoring Medicaid for Dubuque’s Marshallese is hanging in the balance

DUBUQUE, Iowa. (KWWL) ----- It's Wednesday night, December 23rd, 2020. Two days ago, leadership in the U.S. House and Senate passed a coronavirus relief bill. Americans are waiting for details of long-awaited relief to be cemented.

For the Marshallese community, the wait for relief has lasted over 20 years.

Maitha Jolet is a Marshallese man living in Dubuque. He's been watching national cable news, wishing for the moment the bill passes.

"[The pandemic] is really hard for the Marshallese community," said Jolet.

Within the federal COVID-19 relief bill text, a proposal: restoring Medicaid eligibility for the roughly 30,000 migrants from the Marshall Islands who now live in the States.

U.S. troops took control of the Islands from the Axis powers near the end of World War II. U.S. nuclear testing started after the war, forcing migrants out.

Doctors think the testing resulted in staggeringly high rates of pre-existing conditions, including diabetes and heart disease.

This puts Islanders at extremely high risk for COVID-19 complications. Marshallese people make up less than 1% of the county's population. By summertime, more than 20% of the county's COVID-19 deaths were among Marshallese.

The community reacted, working fast with outreach groups, physicians and translators to get Marshallese connected to the care they needed, according to Kelly Larson, director for Dubuque's Human Rights department.

"Pre-existing conditions --- things that people from the Marshall Islands experience ---- come from us having bombed their islands," Larson said.

A pact between these Pacific islands and the U.S. (called COFA) gave the Marshallese the freedom to live and work in the U.S. In return, the States could sustain military presence there.

In 1986, the U.S. promised migrants eligbility for Medicaid coverage. Then, when Medicaid was reformed in 1996, the promise was broken.

Maitha Jolet
Maitha Jolet

Jolet hopes the decades-long struggle will end soon.

"The government still owes people for what has been done," Jolet said. "One of my friends' wife, she died from the COVID. And he showed me the bill. The bill is around $114,000."

"Something is not right. We are in poverty. We don't have money."

Two days before Christmas, Jolet waits with all of us for relief to be certain.

AJ Capuano

Dubuque bureau reporter, KWWL

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