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Court: Cuts to Medical Benefits for Legal Immigrants IIlegal

HARTFORD — Hartford Superior Court has ruled that the state may not terminate the State Medical Assistance for Non-Citizens program.

The ruling was made by Judge Grant H. Miller late Friday.

The SMANC program provides medical assistance to low-income legal immigrants who have lived in the United States less than five years. As a result of Judge Miller’s decision, 4,800 lawfully present immigrants who are aged, blind, disabled, or parents of needy dependent children will again be able to get medical treatment for their chronic conditions, according to lawyers who filed  a class action lawsuit for these legal residents.

The Greater Hartford Legal Aid on Nov. 30th filed the lawsuit to stop the Department of Social Services from implementing a new state law, which the agency claimed would have denied the plaintiffs any medical coverage except for emergency care.

The lawsuit, brought by East Haven resident Hong Pham on behalf of herself and approximately 4,800 others like her, alleged that Public Act 09-5 violated the equal protection guarantees of the Connecticut and the United States constitutions.

The Department of Social Services has not announced whether it intends to appeal the decision or attempt to stay the decision pending appeal.

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Court Mulls Injunction On Medical Benefits For Legal Immigrants

Ann Marie Adams Staff Writer

HARTFORD — The Superior Court of Hartford is mulling over whether to grant a permanent injunction in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of legal immigrants whose medical benefits ended Dec. 1.

On Dec. 9 the Greater Hartford Legal Aide Society lawyers filed an injunction after a a trial in which they argued the constitutionality of what they perceived as the state’s discrimination between legal permanent residents and citizens.

Judge Grant Miller heard both sides of the case, which was put on the court’s fast track since the lawsuit was filed on Dec. 1, the deadline for legal immigrants to appeal the state’s decision.

Social Services spokesman David Dearborn in an email to The Hartford Guardian said the department doesn’t have a comment on the lawsuit. But he did provide information about the State’s Medical Assistance for Non-citizens Program or SMANC.

About 4,800 legal residents were sent discontinuance letters notifying them that their  SMANC benefits would end Dec. 1.  Refugees were exempted.

Nicholas Yorio, an attorney with the area’s legal aide society, said those residents only had four days to file a grievance because the notice was sent out on a Friday, Nov. 20. The following week was Thanksgiving and then the deadline was on the following Monday.

According to a letter from Commissioner of Social Services Michael P. Starkowski, only 120 people had requested a hearing on Dec. 1.

Their benefits have continued, Yorio said, but the rest had their benefits terminated-unless they filed an administrative appeal. The administrative appeal has a 60-day window. But it would be a fruitless appeal because the agency would not rule against itself, Yorio said.

Hence, the lawsuit.

Hong Pham, a legal permanent resident who was formally admitted to the United States four years ago, was named in the class action suit challenging the actions of the Commissioner of Social Services that terminated state-funded medical assistance for herself and other low-income legal immigrants across the state, according to the agency’s press release.

The suit alleges that implementation by the Department of Social Services  of the sate budget law violated the constitutional rights of legal immigrants. It further states that the Equal Protection Clauses of the Connecticut and federal constitutions bar the state from discrimination between citizens and legal non-citizens.

The problem for this group, Yorio said, is that most of these people are indigents, disabled, over 65, or parents of minor children.

Plans to eliminate benefits for legal immigrants began earlier this year as the state wrangled over a budget deficit.

The termination of this program was proposed then. At that time other legal offices and religious organizations around the state alerted the Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and asked him to weigh in on this matter.

In a July 28 letter to Gov. Jodi Rell and legislative leaders, Blumenthal says that ending benefits for legal immigrants “would raise significant constitutional issues and concerns.”

According to Yorio,  Starkowski has adopted the position that this is a legislative enactment and that he is bound to follow the law.

But the legal aide society maintains there’s a serious difference of opinion regarding the constitution because “trimming the budget, though understandable in the current economic climate, is not such a compelling state interest that overrides the constitution.”

The state’s created this program in 1997 for those who have lived in the U.S for less than five years.

“For many years, Connecticut sponsored a 100%-state-funded medical coverage program for documented/legal residents who had been in the country for less than five years. The current budget crisis made a continuation of the state-funded program untenable for the SMANC recipients, except for those in [the exempted] categories,” Dearborn said.

Rell’s proposal, which makes an exception for non-citizens who need emergency care, would save the state $48 million dollars over two years.

Blumenthal says there’s precedence that the idea violates equal protection rights.

“An elimination of the state funded medical assistance in Maryland was held to be unconstitutional because a federal program provided the same kind of medical assistance to citizens. So the Maryland decision provides support to anyone challenging action by the Legislature eliminating this critical medical assistance for legal non-citizens.”


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