PORTLAND — A federal lawsuit on Thursday targeted a rollback of MaineCare benefits supported by Gov. Paul LePage that eliminated health care coverage for hundreds of legal immigrants living in the state.
The lawsuit by Maine Equal Justice Partners and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation was brought on behalf of a Fort Fairfield man who lost his health care benefits while battling cancer. It also seeks class status for an estimated 500 others who lost coverage due to a waiting period for benefits.
The advocacy groups are seeking an injunction to restore benefits for German national Hans Bruns and others like him while the eligibility changes are challenged in federal court.
“Those Mainers have been put in jeopardy of dying painful deaths from treatable illnesses,” said Zachary Heiden of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Foundation.
The governor, who contends MaineCare has grown too big and that the state must live within its means, had no immediate comment on the lawsuit, said Adrienne Bennett, his spokeswoman.
Last June, state lawmakers voted to impose a five-year waiting period for legal immigrants living in Maine to qualify for MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid.
All told, there are more than 300,000 MaineCare recipients. The legislative action that removed 500 people from the rolls was aimed at saving $3.9 million in the current two-year budget cycle.
Bruns, 65, has been a legal permanent resident of the U.S. since late 2007 and began receiving MaineCare benefits in December 2010 after becoming disabled. The benefits were eliminated in October, and several months later he was diagnosed with a rare cancer that began with a tumor in his neck.
In an affidavit, Bruns said he’s in constant pain, has trouble opening and closing his jaw, and has lost weight because of difficulty eating. He said his current emergency benefits are inadequate and that he may die before he reaches the five-year mark allowing restoration of MaineCare benefits in December.
“I’m told that I need chemotherapy, radiation and possibly surgery. I need a lot of pain medication. But now when I need MaineCare the most, it is not there for me,” he wrote.
The federal lawsuit contends the change in MaineCare eligibility violates the U.S. Constitution because it treats legal noncitizen residents differently from U.S. citizens.
“The Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution applies to every person, regardless whether they’re a U.S. citizen,” Heiden said. “The Constitution cannot be bullied and it cannot be ignored.”
The issue dates to 1996, when a congressional welfare overhaul barred legal immigrants from receiving state health care, with an exception for emergency care, until they had lived in the country for five years. Many states like Maine responded by covering lost medical benefits.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services believes the state law is consistent with federal law, which allows states to decide whether or not to provide state-funded Medicaid to legal non-citizens who have been in the U.S. less than five years, said John Martins, agency spokesman.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 21 states provide some level of coverage to legal non-citizens and 15 of those offer state-funded services.
There have been similar lawsuits in other states, and the results have varied depending on how the state-run Medicaid programs are set up, Heiden said.
Bruns, whose English is limited, declined to talk to The Associated Press. In his affidavit, he said he’s resorted to begging for charity care to get help. He said he no longer gets access to pain medications, transportation to health care and access to specialists that he had under MaineCare.
Jennifer Archer, the lead attorney in the case, said Bruns’ “life hangs in the balance but we know that there are hundreds of other Maine residents who also are being wrongly denied necessary medical care.”