Raleigh, N.C. — Republican U.S. Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr are co-sponsoring legislation in Congress to exempt compensation North Carolina is providing to victims of the state's forced sterilization program from calculations the government uses to determine eligibility for Medicaid and other federal benefits.
State lawmakers set aside $10 million in 2013 to provide compensation to victims of the eugenics program, which ran between 1929 and 1974. About 7,600 people were sterilized under the program; roughly 85 percent were women or girls, and most were poor or black.
So, far, 220 confirmed victims have received $20,000 each, and if no more living victims are identified, the rest of the state fund will be divvied up among those 220 people, bringing the final compensation to $45,000 each.
In an op-ed column in the weekend edition of USA Today, Tillis said he recently learned that the compensation payments were having the unintended consequence of affecting federal benefits the eugenics victims were already receiving.
"Presently, the federal government counts the payments against one’s eligibility for federal benefits such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance," he wrote. "Instead of helping the victims and their families make ends meet, the payments could actually result in the denial of the federal benefits they are entitled to."
The legislation that Tillis and Burr and Democratic U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia and Tom Carper of Delaware are sponsoring would close that loophole, he said. Virginia followed North Carolina's lead this year, becoming the second state to offer compensation to eugenics victims.
Tillis highlighted in his column the case of Willis Lynch of Littleton, who was sterilized in 1947 at age 14 after the state deemed him "feeble-minded" and unfit to be a parent because he repeatedly got into fights in school. Lynch went on to serve in the Army and became a "pillar of the community," Tillis said.
"I am encouraged to see such broad, bipartisan support among my colleagues to help ensure living eugenics victims receive their full compensation payments and federal benefits. I also hope this legislation will raise awareness across the nation over the fact that these deplorable government-sanctioned programs existed in the first place. The stories of the terrible transgressions made against innocent Americans like Willis Lynch deserve to be heard and never forgotten," Tillis wrote.