Josie Howard, Program Director of Hawaii’s We Are Oceania (WAO) organization, is feeling extremely grateful that the US government’s Covid-19 relief bill will finally reinstate Medicaid eligibility to all Compact of Free Association citizens living in the United States.
“I’ve been meeting with Senator Mazie Hirono and others on this and we are all moving forward to moving COFA citizens from the ‘marketplace’ (Obamacare) to the Medicaid program,” said Josie, who is from Chuuk in Federated States of Micronesia.
WAO’s aim is to be a support system for all Micronesian communities in Hawaii. “We have a contract with the Department of Human Services to sign islanders up for Obamacare and MedQuest and we have an existing contract for Medicaid.”
Full Medicaid eligibility was taken away ‘by mistake’ from citizens from the Marshall Islands, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia in 1996. Since 2015 in Hawaii, only COFA citizens over 65, under 18, and those with disabilities, were able to access the Medicaid program.
Now Josie is expecting that over 10,000 people in the island state will be wanting to sign up for Medicaid, with a large portion of these being COFA citizens.
“We haven’t taken any real action yet, but we continue to use our ‘Virtual Island Hopper’ system to educate the community on the changes that are happening,” she said. The Virtual Island Hopper idea is so named because of the importance of the long-time United Airlines route in linking people in Micronesia. It uses meetings on Zoom and information posted on WAO’s Facebook page to get important medical information out to the island communities.
Josie is optimistic that eligible people will be able to sign up for Medicaid “within two months and perhaps even this month. But this is going to be such a huge job, we are hoping that Human Services or even a federal agency will provide us with more funding for staff to help us with the enrollment.”
WAO currently has six staff working on enrollment to various medical insurance programs. “They include two awesome Marshallese staff who work with their community: Charity Rakin and Leah Milne.” But with so many people expected to apply, WAO will desperately need more islander staff to deal with the load.
WAO doesn’t just work with Micronesians. “We’re also helping other immigrant folks,” said Josie. “We are helping everyone all the time.”
Charity, who has worked for We Are Oceania for five years, is also delighted about Medicaid coming back for everyone.
Under the marketplace (Obamacare) system, people have to renew their medical insurance every year between November 1 and December 15. “But our people have a problem with timing, with deadlines,” Charity said. “We have to remind them to renew their marketplace enrollments. Many of them miss the deadline or come on the last day to ask us to help them.”
But the Medicaid program allows people to sign on any time. “There’s no deadline for it,” Charity said.
The methods Charity uses to help Marshallese are many. Do they come to her office? Do they call or text?
“All of the above at almost any time of the day,” she laughed. “I get calls at night, just before I’m going to sleep or they contact me on Messenger. We also have a help line and a lot of people use that.”
Charity’s main role is to help with filling in medical forms, but she’s also happy to help in other areas if needed. “For example, I keep passport renewal forms for them and, if they need it, I can help them fill out the form,” she said.
Charity helps all of the islanders from around the region who come to or call the WAO office, but her focus is Marshallese. “They always ask for me,” she said.
Charity is well-versed in Medicaid forms and is looking forward to helping people sign up in the new year.