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Spokane Representative Works to Get Health Care for Local Marshallese Community

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
University of Washington anthropologist Holly Barker speaks about the history of the U.S.-Marshall Islands relationship at a community forum. Behind her is a slide featuring a photo of an atomic bomb test over the islands in 1954.

SPR's Doug Nadvornick interviews University of Washington anthropologist Holly Barker about the Marshall Islands and its people and about the Pacific island nation's ties to American pop culture.

One of Spokane’s largest ethnic communities comes from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The islands are located near the Equator between Hawaii and the Philippines.  

For thousands of years, the Marshallese people have had their own culture and traditions. But because of the islands’ perceived strategic importance, the Japanese military occupied them during World War II. When the Japanese surrendered, the U.S. took possession and immediately found a use for them.

(sound of an atomic bomb blast)

Atomic bombs were detonated 67 times between 1946 and 1958, in the atmosphere above and the water between the Marshall Islands. Newsreels tell the stories about how American doctors studied the Marshallese people for signs of radiation-related illnesses.

Newsreel announcer: “229 natives and 28 American service personnel received doses ranging from 12 to 200 Roentgens. Shortly after the shot, they were evacuated to Kwajalein for treatment and observation.”

Since then, the islands have remained important to the U.S., even after becoming independent in 1986. Because of that, residents there are free to travel to the U.S. and tens of thousands live here now.

University of Washington anthropologist Holly Barker studies the Marshall Islands. She lived and worked there for 15 years.

“For the people of the Marshall Islands, there are a lot of violences that continue from the testing program: the inability to live on their home islands, the health care issues and problems that remain with them today, the residual radiation on the islands," Barker said. "And so there’s a great need for awareness and understanding and friendship and solidarity. What are our responsibilities as U-S citizens, as people of Washington state, to think about the role than Hanford played and the connections to this community?”

About a thousand Marshallese now make their homes in Spokane. Ryan Douse is a liaison to that community for the Spokane School District.

“The Marshallese are always very welcoming people," Douse said. "You always get food when you go to events. If you go to local parks you can see them out there. They run a lot of softball tournaments, volleyball. Just a very family, community-driven culture.”

Douse is also a masters degree student in public health at Eastern Washington University. He works to connect Marshallese people with health care. Right now, that’s a challenge. In 1996, federal welfare reforms removed people from the Marshall Islands for eligibility in the Medicaid program. So low-income Marshallese people have limited options for care. Douse says that means their first stop when they get sick is often a hospital emergency room.

“What we’re trying to do is resolve that issue and get them some health insurance so they can start seeking other access, monthly appointments or yearly appointments. Because, with that access issue, there’s a high rate of diabetes and different cancers within the community because of the atomic testing that occurred,” he said.

A Marshallese man sings and plays a ukelele to welcome people to a public forum last Saturday at a central Spokane church. The purpose was to tell the stories of the Marshallese people here in Spokane and talk about their health challenges.

(voice of a man speaking Marshallese)

A Marshallese elder stands at the front of the church to tell his story. A younger man translates for him.

“We would like to help members of our community, our Marshallese community. Not being able to access Medicare or the other health insurance is something that we would like to overcome,” the interpreter said.

Joining them onstage was Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane). He’s the co-sponsor of a bill in the legislature that would allow the Marshallese and other low-income Pacific Islanders in Washington to get financial help to buy health insurance. Later in an interview, he told us about it.

“Right now in Washington state through the Affordable Care Act and through the Obamacare expansion of Medicaid, everybody who is a citizen under 133% of the federal poverty level receives Apple Health, which is free. This bill would just be for those same folks at 133% or less of the federal poverty level would just be premium assistance to help them purchase their premiums on health care. It would not be free,” Riccelli said. He said the governor's budget includes money to fold Marshallese people into Apple Health.


Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR
State Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) answers questions from the audience at the Marshallese community forum. Behind him is the interpreter.

Riccelli was followed onstage by a woman who called herself the crowd’s a Pacific Islander sister. Ty Tufono is a member of Washington’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. She is Polynesian.

“We got to be strong, brothers and sisters. We got to be strong. We got to make sure these bills pass. We got to make sure that our people are taken care of. It’s your right,” Tufono said.

The bill co-sponsored by Marcus Riccelli passed the House on a party line vote earlier this year but didn’t receive a vote in the Senate. He hopes with Democrats regaining control of the Senate next month that the bill, will be approved. He says Governor Inslee has included money for that, about two million dollars, in his budget for next year.  

(sound of people singing the Marshallese anthem)

If it passes, it means hundreds of Spokane residents, including this group singing the anthem of the Marshall Islands, might be able to bypass the emergency rooms and see their doctors to get the care they need.