LEWISTON — A group backing a Nov. 7 ballot initiative to expand Maine’s Medicaid coverage launched its campaign Wednesday, setting the stage for what is likely to be a costly and fiercely fought political battle.

Robyn Merrill, co-chair of the Mainers for Health Care steering committee and executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the measure would not only help 70,000 more Mainers get health care coverage, but it will also bolster the state’s economy, stabilize rural hospitals and create as many as 3,000 new jobs.

“The benefit and the impact goes beyond the 70,000 people who would directly benefit,” Merrill said at a Lewiston press conference. “We know from research that states that have expanded their Medicaid programs have seen their private insurance markets stabilize or bring down prices.”

But expansion opponents, who have formed the political action committee Welfare to Work, responded with a statement labeling Medicaid as “medical welfare” and noting that Maine’s last dalliance with Medicaid expansion resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in state debt.

“The Medicaid welfare expansion on this November’s ballot is about giving welfare to working age adults who are not disabled while saddling Maine taxpayers with massive additional costs,” state Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, a spokeswoman for the opposition, said in a prepared statement. “This makes it even more difficult for the state to take care of the hundreds of cognitively and physically disabled Mainers who have been languishing on waitlists.”

Supporters collected some 65,000 signatures on Election Day alone last November to put the question on the ballot.

Dr. Elizabeth Rothe, with St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston, said she has patients who work full-time and earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid but can’t afford health insurance premiums or costly medications. Rothe said others she cares for are eligible for the hospital’s charity care programs but ineligible for Medicaid.

She said some patients are only one illness or injury away from a “health disaster” and “financial ruin.”

The Maine Legislature has passed Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act five times since 2011, but Gov. Paul LePage vetoed each bill.

LePage and his Republican allies in the Legislature have argued that expansion would decimate the state’s budget, costing taxpayers as much as $500 million over the next 10 years.

But expansion backers, including the Maine Hospital Association, have argued that matching federal funds for the expansion, even at the lowest reimbursement rate of 90 percent, would more than outweigh the cost.

A legislative study estimates that it would cost the state $93 million to expand Medicaid through 2019, but it would also bring in $1.2 billion in federal funding.

Maine is one of only 19 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the ACA. A few of those states have begun to explore expansion now that the Republican effort to repeal and replace the ACA has failed.

In Maine, about one in five adults receive insurance through Medicaid. Maine’s congressional delegation, except for 2nd District Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, has opposed repealing the ACA, saying it should be improved instead.

Also speaking out against expansion is a group of Republican state lawmakers who have asked Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap to re-word the ballot question to remove the word “insurance”, arguing Medicaid is not an insurance program but a benefit program.

Question 2 currently reads: “Do you want Maine to provide health insurance through Medicaid for qualified adults under the age of 65 with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line (which is now about $16,000 for a single person and $22,000 for a family of two)?”

Mainers for Health Care, registered as a ballot question committee with the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, has raised $85,000 and spent just over $13,000 based on the group’s July campaign finance report. Most of the group’s funds, $75,000 so far, have come from the California-based Fairness Project, which helps promote progressive state ballot measures, including efforts to increase the minimum wage and expand Medicaid.

The Welfare to Work PAC, the only organized opposition to the ballot question so far, has reported $229 of in-kind contributions, according to its initial filing with the ethics commission. The PAC is headed by former LePage adviser Michael Hersey and is expected to raise and spend significant funds to defeat the ballot question.

The Legislature could repeal Medicaid expansion even if voters approve it, although that seems unlikely given past bipartisan votes to approve expansion. LePage’s vetoes have been upheld with the support of a small number of House Republicans.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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