OLYMPIA – Rose Kabau left Spokane at 2 a.m. Thursday for the five-hour drive to the state capital and a chance to witness a historic moment for her community. It was the last leg of a long journey.
Along with a group of about two dozen other Marshallese from the Spokane area, she wanted to be present when Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new law to provide health care for Pacific Islanders in Washington.
“I can’t believe it’s finally happening. We’ve worked so hard for this,” she said after a signing ceremony that included the singing of a Marshallese song “There is No Better Time Than Now” by Pacific Islanders who filled the state Reception Room, draping the governor with shell necklaces and a reception in the Capitol Building.
“All those sleepless days and nights, and we’re finally here,” she said.
The law provides health care benefits for citizens of the Compact of Free Association, which includes the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau. Approximately 3,000 Marshall Islanders live in the Spokane area.
Until recently, members of COFA nations were not eligible for Medicaid despite living and working in the United States. The new law provides more coverage.
“We pay all the taxes. Our children die in Afghanistan and all those places,” said Saimon Milne, a Marshallese elder living in Spokane. “But (the government) said, ‘You’re not a U.S. citizen.’ ”
Citizens of COFA nations have experienced health problems linked to nuclear testing by the United States in the Marshall Islands during the 1940s and ’50s.
Doresty Daniel, another Spokane Marshall Islander, said the new law will especially benefit their elders. Many have chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol that they can now get treated.
“I feel like I accomplished something for my community,” she said. “They know we can go to the doctor now, (because) we have the insurance.”
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, praised the Marshall Islander community in Spokane for its work to help pass the legislation to close what he called a “gap” in health care policy.
“Everybody deserves a right to affordable, accessible health care,” he said. “We want every Washingtonian to have the opportunity to thrive.”