A champion for immigrants’ health-care rights

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

In a case successfully argued by Northeastern law professor Wendy Parmet, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that excluding some 40,000 legal immigrants from a subsidized health-care program likely violates equal protection rights outlined in the state’s constitution.

Parmet, Matthews distinguished professor of law, argued the case on behalf of the immigrants, who were cut from Commonwealth Care in 2009 after lawmakers sought to reduce state spending.

Last week, she discussed the case in The Boston Globe and on the WBUR radio program “All Things Considered.”

Parmet, a specialist in public-health law, championed the importance of adequate health-care coverage for all. “Health care is an extraordinarily important human right,” said Parmet, who served as president of the board of directors of Health Law Advocates, a public-interest law firm that brought the class action case to court. “If we don’t have access to health care when we need it, then much of the other things we hope and expect people can do with their lives will be unattainable.”

A politically paralyzed class, she said, should not suffer the consequences of a state’s financial instability. “What the state can’t do is put the burden of fiscal problems on the backs of a vulnerable class,” she said.

The court did not mandate lawmakers to reinstate legal immigrants in the health-care program, but said the state would have to provide a compelling reason under “strict scrutiny” to continue denying subsidized coverage. Parmet called the state’s argument “very tough to prove.”

The lawsuit will move to a single Supreme Judicial Court justice, who will decide the case.

Parmet is hopeful that all of her clients — many of whom suffer from chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes — will be re-enrolled in the Commonwealth Care program. After funding for the program was slashed two years ago, many immigrants were moved to a cheaper state plan, which includes fewer health-care providers and requires participants to pay higher fees for prescriptions and doctor’s visits.

“It’s not a satisfactory alternative,” said Parmet. “If it were a marvelous program, then everyone in the state would be on it.”

Several Northeastern law school students and graduates helped Parmet research the case, with a limited supply of resources. “All of them did amazing work,” she said. “We couldn’t have done this without them.”