Immigrant advocates are asking the state’s highest court to strike down a decision last year by lawmakers to deny tens of thousands of legal immigrants access to subsidized insurance under Massachusetts’ health care law.
Health Law Advocates filed the lawsuit Thursday, calling the cut a violation of the equal protection clause of both the Massachusetts and federal constitutions.
The state budget approved by lawmakers last June ended health care funding for about 30,000 legal immigrants enrolled in Commonwealth Care, the subsidized plan that is the core of the 2006 law. Commonwealth Care provides subsidized insurance to those earning up to three times the federal poverty level.
The cut was estimated to save the state about $130 million a year. Legislative leaders said they had little choice given the state’s fiscal straits. Tax collections in Massachusetts for the fiscal year that ended June 30 fell 12.5 percent compared with the prior fiscal year, coming in about $3.2 billion under the original estimate.
The decision to deny coverage to legal immigrants was the first major rollback to Massachusetts’ landmark law, which has been used in part as a blueprint in the ongoing debate for a national health care overhaul. The state law requires nearly all Massachusetts residents be insured.
Those bringing the lawsuit say it’s unconstitutional to exclude an entire group of people like legal immigrants — especially because they are still required to sign up for health insurance like other Massachusetts residents under the law.
Wendy Parmet, a law professor from Northeastern who is helping represent the plaintiffs, said the U.S. Supreme Court has said states shouldn’t discriminate against legal immigrants for essentially the same reasons states can’t discriminate against people on the basis of race.
“The Massachusetts and federal constitutions are designed to protect the minority members of our society who can’t speak out for themselves,” Parmet said in a statement. “The Legislature enacted a law that on its face calls for separate and unequal treatment. That’s not something the Constitution allows.
Gov. Deval Patrick signed the state budget that included the health care cut but also announced a plan that would provide some health care coverage for legal immigrants starting last October.
That plan was estimated to cost the state about $40 million, about a third of what was needed to continue coverage for legal immigrants under Commonwealth Care, but doesn’t include hospice or dental coverage.
Those bringing the lawsuit called the new program “hastily constructed,” less comprehensive and much less affordable for immigrants.
They said that because the new program is open only to residents who were on Commonwealth Care as of July 2009, 8,000 legal immigrant residents have been denied insurance coverage entirely, solely because they are immigrants.
“These are people who have a right to be here. They pay the same taxes as we do, they send their kids to the same schools, they sit next to us at work, they fill out the same forms to get a driver’s license,” said Matt Selig, executive director of Health Law Advocates. “But they can’t vote — so in a budget crisis, they’re the first ones to suffer.”
The group filed the suit directly with a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, pointing to what they called the cut’s broad impact. If the justice agrees, the case could be scheduled for argument before the full court later this year.