Bill To Help Spokane's Marshallese Community Moves Closer to Passage

Feb 16, 2018

Advocates for Marshall Islanders who live in Washington testified before a Washington House committee today.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR/TVW

Representatives of Spokane’s Marshall Islands community moved a step closer today (Friday) to getting help from the state to buy health insurance.

Spokane has one of the largest populations of people from the Marshall Islands in the state. Residents are allowed to move here because of an agreement the U.S. has with the Marshall Islands and the island nations of Palau and Micronesia.

For years, the U.S. detonated atomic weapons above the islands and tested the health effects of the fallout. Large numbers of people who lived there contracted cancer and other radiation-related illnesses.

People from those nations can buy insurance through Washington’s health exchange, but they don’t qualify for free care through Medicaid. The bill would allow the poorest Marshall Islanders who can’t afford to buy insurance to get money from the state to help them pay their premiums.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane).

“There were 67 nuclear explosions conducted on the islands where the folks were affected. They don’t have a cancer doctor on their islands. A lot of the folks come to Washington through this agreement. They have served in our military at times. They serve in our community," Riccelli said. "This is, I think, a good bill that will provide people more access and coverage.”

Others say providing the immigrants from the islands is a federal obligation that the government has abdicated.

State officials say as many as 2,500 people could be helped by the bill. It has passed the Senate and now goes to the full House. If it’s approved there, it’s on to the governor’s desk.