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Health Advocates Launch Effort to Bring Medicaid Expansion Measure to Maine Voters

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Kathleen Phelps, of Waterville, advocates for expanding Medicaid in Maine under the Affordable Care Act at a news conference in Portland.

Today in Portland, a coalition of health advocates launched a citizen initiative campaign to expand access to health care. Supporters say it’s time to put the issue of Medicaid expansion directly to Maine voters, after several measures in the legislature have been vetoed by Governor Paul LePage.

Maine is one of 19 states that has opted not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. For Kathleen Phelps of Waterville, who can’t afford health insurance it has created a coverage gap.

“I basically fell through the cracks,” Phelps says. “I no longer qualify for MaineCare because there’s no one who lives with me, I live alone. I’m not 65, and I can’t afford Obama Care.”

Phelps is a hairdresser. She earns too much to be eligible for Medicaid under current requirements, but not enough to qualify for tax credits to purchase insurance on the online Marketplace. As a result, she can’t afford the oxygen she needs to manage her emphysema.

“I’ve tried to get help with oxygen, and there’s nothing out there,” she says. “And I can’t afford out of pocket. I live day to day.”

“We hear from people all the time who are trying to access health care, and they can’t afford it, and they don’t have insurance,” says. Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, one of the groups behind the citizen initiative campaign to expand access to health care.

“We have missed out on an opportunity for Maine, and this really is a solution that can’t wait,” says Merrill. “It’s long overdue. We should have done this years ago.”

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government covers 100% of the cost of Medicaid expansion through 2016, then tapers down to 90% coverage by 2020. Maine lawmakers have introduced several bills to expand Medicaid, but Governor LePage has vetoed these attempts five times. Portland physician Chuck Radis says he hopes lawmakers will try again next year, but thinks that voters should also take matters into their own hands.

“This would bring nearly $470 million in new federal funds to our state,” Radis says. “This would go to hospitals, this would go to pay for prescription drugs. This would pay for a myriad of needs by patients by providing health insurance. And it’s estimated that about 3,000 good paying job would be created, with an estimated $27 million in savings to the state budget.”

But Republican Sen. Eric Brakey, co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, says it was just a few years ago that Maine paid off Medicaid debt owed to hospitals.  Expanding the program, he says, would be a step backwards.

“By some estimates, we would be looking at a cost to state taxpayers of half a billion dollars over the next 10 years,” he says.

Leslie Clark, CEO of Greater Portland Health, discusses signature drive for Medicaid expansion at newser in Portland.
Credit Patty Wight/MPBN
Leslie Clark, CEO of Greater Portland Health, discusses signature drive for Medicaid expansion at newser in Portland.

And with the federal government $20 trillion in debt, Brakey says he doubts that it will live up to its promise to cover 90% of Medicaid expansion costs in perpetuity. But Leslie Clark of Greater Portland Health says doing nothing will leave 70,000 Mainers without insurance, and health centers are already scrambling to provide care.

“We have staff out seeking donations just to help people access medications or wheelchairs or basic items that they need,” Clark says. “This is not how Maine should be.”

To place Medicaid expansion on the ballot in 2018, organizers will need to collect more than 61,000 signatures.