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Medicaid expansion petition nears finish line, setting up November vote

June 29, 2018 GMT

LINCOLN — Backers of a Medicaid expansion petition drive expressed confidence Thursday that they will get the proposal before Nebraska voters this fall.

To make the November ballot, the organizers must turn in about 85,000 valid signatures of registered voters by next Thursday. The total must include the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters from at least 38 counties.

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“We are right on target,” said Meg Mandy, campaign manager for Insure the Good Life. “We have the number of signatures we need. It’s just getting the counties.”

She said about 100 people a day are working to gather signatures from places as far-flung as Tryon, Spalding, South Sioux City, Santee and Omaha. The effort includes a mix of volunteer and paid circulators.

The group plans to continue collecting signatures through Independence Day on Wednesday, when circulators can reach large numbers of people at holiday events, Mandy said. Signatures will be submitted to the Secretary of State’s office for verification the following day.

Insure the Good Life is pushing a proposed state law that would extend Medicaid coverage to about 90,000 low-income Nebraskans.

The proposal would cover single adults and couples without minor children, who cannot qualify for Medicaid now, and would cover parents and disabled people at higher income levels than allowed currently.

People making up to 138 percent of the poverty level — $16,753 for a single person or $34,638 for a family of four — could get coverage under the plan.

Similar expansion proposals have failed in the Nebraska Legislature six years in a row, in the face of stiff opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts and, before him, Gov. Dave Heineman.

The two Republican governors argued that expansion would be unaffordable and would favor able-bodied Nebraskans over the vulnerable citizens currently covered by Medicaid.

Ricketts has offered little comment about the petition drive so far. On Thursday, the governor’s campaign manager said Ricketts “is focused on his re-election campaign.”

No organized opposition has emerged yet, but leaders of two organizations that testified against Medicaid expansion legislation said they are keeping a close eye on the petition drive.

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Jessica Shelburn, state director for Americans for Prosperity, and Jim Vokal, chief executive officer of the Platte Institute, said the groups will decide on how involved to become once they know if the measure will make the ballot.

“We do have concerns,” Shelburn said.

Mandy said circulators have encountered little of such opposition when seeking signatures. Rather, she said, most people have concerns about the rising costs of health care and how it affects families’ pocketbooks.

Several Nebraska health care associations and advocacy groups are backing the Medicaid expansion petition. Top local donors include the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, which has provided more than $26,000 worth of in-kind services, and the Nebraska State Education Association, which donated $20,000.

But the bulk of the funding has come from the Fairness Project, based in Washington, D.C., which had provided $851,510 in money and in-kind support to the Nebraska drive as of May 26.

Along with the Nebraska effort, the organization is supporting state ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid in Utah and Idaho and to keep Montana’s expansion going after its 2019 sunset date.

Federal law has allowed states to expand their Medicaid coverage since 2014 as part of the Affordable Care Act. The Medicaid expansion portion of the federal law has survived all attempts to repeal the broader law. So far, 32 states, including Iowa, have expanded their Medicaid programs.