Health care advocates delivered more than 67,000 signatures to the Secretary of State today to place a referendum on the ballot to expand Medicaid coverage in Maine. The petitions pave the way for a public vote on accepting federal funding to cover tens of thousands of Mainers who currently can't afford health insurance but have been denied coverage through Medicaid. Similar bills have been passed by bi-partisan majorities in the legislature multiple times in recent years, but have been repeatedly vetoed by Governor Paul LePage.
For Dr. Jane Pringle, an MD from Windham who helped to collect signatures for the initiative, expanding health coverage is a life or death concern.
“I have had clients where Medicaid access could have prevented their illness or their disability or their death. It’s heartbreaking,” said Pringle. “With this referendum, we can finally invest in the health of our neighbors who, through no fault of their own, do not have health insurance. Right now, they do not have access to the care that can save their lives or keep them healthy enough to work.”
Pringle spoke to supporters of Mainers for Health Care, a diverse coalition of organizations backing the initiative, at a rally in the State House Hall of Flags. She was joined by personally-affected Mainers and members of the health care, law enforcement and faith communities.
“About two years ago, I lost my health care coverage through Medicaid because of budget cuts and because our state refused to accept federal funds to expand access to health care coverage through MaineCare,” explained Kathy Phelps, a self-employed hairdresser from Waterville. “Since losing coverage, I have struggled to pay for and at times gone without the oxygen I need for respiratory problems. I feel it every day. I’m tired and I often have a hard time breathing. Sometimes at night I can’t breathe. It’s terrifying, but I can’t afford the $100 a month for oxygen.”
In addition to covering more than 70,000 working Mainers, expanding health coverage through Medicaid will also bring $500 million in federal funds to the state and is projected to create more than 3,000 new health care jobs, predominately in rural areas. According to law enforcement and drug treatment experts, it’s also a vital step in addressing Maine’s opioid addiction epidemic.
“Expanding Medicaid will help our state provide treatment while at the same time making available the resources we need to rebuild our substance abuse and mental health provider infrastructure,” said Joel Merry, Sheriff for Sagadahoc County. “By accepting the federal health care funds, we will improve access to treatment and care. In the end, this will save taxpayers money and save lives, which we can't measure in dollars and cents.”
The signatures were gathered through a grassroots effort involving hundreds of volunteers from every corner of Maine. The petitions will now be evaluated by the office of Maine’s Secretary of State. If more than 61,123 are found to be valid, the initiative will appear as a question on this November’s General Election ballot.
“Mainers are good people. We take care of one another, and that is why I believe so many people signed these petitions. I don’t think Maine voters will let politics stand in the way of health care for 70,000 of their friends, family and neighbors,” said Phelps.