PORTLAND – A 65-year-old cancer patient is suing the state Department of Health and Human Services for cutting off his MaineCare benefits last year in a welfare reform effort.

Hans Bruns of Fort Fairfield is the plaintiff in a case filed by Maine Equal Justice Partners and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. The groups claim that the state violated the U.S. Constitution when it implemented a law in October that restricts benefits to legal immigrants.

“The Constitution can’t be bullied and its protections cannot be ignored,” said Zachary Heiden, an attorney with the ACLU of Maine.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, the groups seek class-action status to represent about 500 Maine residents who are in the same situation as Bruns. They are asking the court to require the state to restore health insurance to everyone who was affected by the cut.

The LePage administration offered no comment Thursday in response to the lawsuit, but it did provide information on the policy adopted last year in the state budget.

John Martins, spokesman for the DHHS, said the policy is consistent with federal guidelines, which allow states to determine the level of benefits they offer to legal noncitizens who have lived in the U.S. for fewer than five years.

“The growth of Maine’s public assistance programs and the generosity of these programs have brought forth difficult decisions in order to live within our means,” Martins said in a prepared statement.

The cuts to benefits were part of the two-year state budget passed by the Legislature in June 2011. The cuts are projected to save the state $1.3 million in this fiscal year, and $2.6 million in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Advocates who filed the lawsuit say Bruns is just one of 500 people in Maine who no longer have health insurance because of the new law. The law affects all legal noncitizens age 21 and older who are not pregnant. A sizable number of them are elderly and disabled, said Robyn Merrill, an attorney for Maine Equal Justice Partners.

Bruns has cancer and has been a legal resident of the U.S. since December 2007. Originally from Germany, he has lived in Maine since 2009 with his American wife.

Before last year’s passage of the state budget, which eliminated all but emergency coverage for legal noncitizens who have lived in the U.S. for less than five years, Bruns received MaineCare health insurance for about a year. MaineCare is the state’s version of Medicaid.

In an affidavit filed with the lawsuit, Bruns says he has adenoid cystic carcinoma and needs chemotherapy, radiation and possibly surgery, and may not be able to wait until December for benefits.

He did not attend a news conference in Portland announcing the lawsuit Thursday because he was receiving treatments in Presque Isle, Merrill said. Those treatments are paid for through charity care covered by hospitals.

“Because my full MaineCare benefits have been terminated, and I have very little money, I no longer have access to help that I need including pain medication, help with transportation to medical appointments, access to some specialty care and all the types of medical services that I need to survive,” Bruns said in the affidavit. “I am getting some medical help as charity care, but I have to keep begging for it and never know if it will still be there.”

Even before he was elected in 2010, Gov. Paul LePage said he wanted to restrict benefits to noncitizens because the state cannot afford to pay for people who move to Maine to get help. Shortly after taking office in January 2011, he signed an executive order to allow DHHS officials to inquire about immigration status when deciding who qualifies for benefits.

In his budget speech that year, he said Maine is “one of the few places in the country that offers welfare on day one for legal noncitizens.”

Statistics provided by the administration show that 21 states provide some level of coverage to legal noncitizens and, of those, 15 offer state-funded services.

Advocates say the new restrictions violate equal protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution that prohibit the state from “discriminating in the distribution of benefits or services” because of alien or immigration status.

“Without proper treatment, Hans faces a terrifying and painful fight for his life with a very poor prognosis for survival,” Merrill said. “We are asking the court to restore Hans’ health insurance coverage so he can get the full range of treatment that could result in better health outcomes and ease his suffering.” 

State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

scover@mainetoday.com