The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts struck down a state law in effect since 2009 that barred some legal immigrants residing in the state from receiving subsidized health insurance coverage.
The court ruled that the law violated the immigrants’ right to equal protection under the Massachusetts Constitution. As such, nearly 30,000 legal immigrants who have lived in the state for less than five years will now have the same access to insurance subsidies under the state’s Commonwealth Connector insurance program, as all other residents.
But the ruling comes at a cost. The state estimates it will need to come up with as much as $150 million to pay for the insurance subsidies.
“We recognize that our decision will impose a significant financial burden on the commonwealth,” wrote Justice Robert J. Cordy in the unanimous ruling, while noting that "the fiscal consequences of any ... judgment on the merits cannot be permitted to intrude on consideration of the case before us. If the plaintiffs' right to equal protection of the laws has been violated by the enactment of (the 2009 law), then it is our duty to say so.”
In making its ruling, the court rejected the states main defense of the law which was based on the federal government’s policy of only providing full coverage to legal immigrants after they have resided in the country for five or more years.
“The Legislature may not lean on federal policy as a crutch to absolve it of examining whether its own invidious discrimination is truly necessary,” Cordy concluded.
The original law, concocted in 2009, came as the state was facing a $1.5 billion budgetary shortfall. Still faced with a tight budget, the state will be hard pressed to find the additional $150 million to pay for the additional subsidies.
Jay Gonzalez, state administration and finance secretary, said in a press conference after the decision that the ruling will complicate what is already a very difficult budget process. “However, we respect the Court’s decision and we will work expeditiously to identify the resources required and the operational steps that need to be taken to integrate all eligible, legal immigrants into the Commonwealth Care program.”