Marshall Islanders seek response from Congress to health care burdens

Marshall Islanders seek response from Congress to health care burdens

October 31, 2002
Written by Staff Reports

Ferdinand M. Rico (second from left), the UCC's Minister for Pacific Islander and Asian American Relations, and Marshall Island representatives (from left) Erine Jitiam, Miroko Langinbelik and Letwan Talensa listen to Congressional testimony. Sandra Sorensen photo.

"When the Bravo bomb was tested, the military did not relocate us. We were surprised to hear a loud noise so early in the morning. After a few hours, we noticed the powder falling down on us. It covered our hair, our bodies and everything. Later on we began to experience itchiness all over our bodies, burning sensations and blisters where we scratched. One day later they came to take us to Kwajalein [a neighboring atoll]. It was already too late. My parents died of thyroid cancer. My father also had stomach cancer. I have thyroid cancer."

This is the story of Aruku Bobo from the Rongelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands. She traveled thousands of miles with six fellow Marshallese to tell her story at a Congressional briefing held Sept. 13 at the U.S. Capitol. The briefing highlighted areas of concern related to the current renegotiation of the Compact of Free Association. The Compact was created in 1983, approved by Congress in 1986, and defines the relationship between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The Compact contains important provisions related to health care for those Marshall Islanders who have been affected by U.S. military activity in that area. In 1946, the United States began to test nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, a total land area about the size of Washington, D.C., located approximately halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Over the next 12 years, the United States detonated 67 nuclear bombs in the air, land and water of the Marshall Islands. In 1952, the United States detonated the first thermonuclear weapon, a 10-megaton blast, followed in 1954 by Bravo, a 15-megaton blast. The effects were both immediate—severe cases of radiation poisoning—and long-term: forced migrations from contaminated land and health problems inherited by new generations of Marshallese.

The 177 Health Care Program (HCP) is a provision of the Compact established to provide assistance to those suffering from the effects of the atomic tests. Parts of the 177 HCP provision have already lapsed, and other elements are due to lapse in 2003. The delegation sponsored by the UCC met with members of Congress in September to urge refunding of the provision, and to call attention to the need for a sustainable health care system for the island nation. The UCC, through a General Synod resolution in 1999 and a General Synod pronouncement in 2001, called for support of the Marshallese as they seek fair treatment from the United States.

Members of the delegation tirelessly walked the halls of Congress all week, telling their own stories and those of family members who are battling numerous forms of cancer and infection, with only the modest support of $14 per person per month in health care assistance from the 177 HCP provision. Said Aruku Bobo: "I have to take medication daily. The doctors told me if I miss one day, that is equivalent to two years of my life. Without the 177 HCP, I am not able to get medicine."

Sandra Sorensen is Associate for Communications and Media Advocacy in the Washington, D.C., office of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.  

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