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Nebraska Medicaid ballot org says it has met signature goal

July 5, 2018

Volunteer Allie Christianson of Omaha, sorts late-arriving signed petitions to be added to petitions in boxes, rear, in Lincoln, Neb., Thursday, July 5, 2018. The group Insure the Good Life, seeking to expand Medicaid in Nebraska, announced it has gathered more than 133,000 signatures, well above the required minimum of 85,000 signatures to place the issue on the November general-election ballot. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A group that’s seeking to expand Medicaid in Nebraska has collected more than enough signatures to place the issue on the November general election ballot, organizers said Thursday.

Insure the Good Life announced it has gathered more than 133,000 signatures, well above the required minimum of 85,000.

The petitions were due to Secretary of State John Gale’s office by Thursday afternoon. The signatures still need to be verified, a process that will take weeks, but campaign officials said they’re confident voters will get to decide the issue.

“Our state is strongest when all Nebraskans have the chance to be healthy, and it’s hard to stay healthy without health insurance,” said state Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, a leading proponent. “Expanding Medicaid is a long overdue solution that would allow our hardworking families, friends and neighbors to get the health care everyone needs and deserves.”

Nebraska’s Republican-dominated Legislature has rejected six previous attempts to expand Medicaid under former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman opposed the expansion, arguing it would divert state money away from other priorities. Ricketts’ Democratic challenger, state Sen. Bob Krist, said he supports the ballot initiative.

Conservative organizations vowed to fight the ballot measure.

“This proposal will make a bad problem worse by further straining a broken Medicaid program that already struggles to provide quality health care services for Nebraska’s most vulnerable citizens,” said Jessica Shelburn, state director of the group Americans for Prosperity-Nebraska.

Despite the state’s conservative leanings, petition organizers said they’re hopeful voters will pass the measure. They pointed to Maine, the first and only state so far to expand Medicaid coverage through a ballot measure. It still hasn’t been implemented there, as Republican Gov. Paul LePage has fought it.

Former state Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, who fought for years to expand Medicaid in the Legislature, said the measure would help rural hospitals that have struggling financially because of patients who can’t pay their bills.

“A ‘yes’ vote for this initiative underscores our Nebraska heritage of supporting and caring for each other,” Campbell said. “We need to work very hard until November.”

Andy Hale, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Hospital Association, said allowing voters to decide the issue could remove some of the partisan pressures that have built around it.

“Changes in Medicaid should be motivated by the needs of the patients and the people, and not by politics,” Hale said.

The measure would provide health care coverage to an estimated 90,000 people, ages 19 to 64, who earn too much to qualify for regular Medicaid but too little to be eligible for financial assistance available under the Affordable Care Act. Many residents who fall into the so-called coverage gap work in service jobs with no benefits, such as hotel, fast-food and construction workers.

The ballot initiative was heavily financed by the Fairness Project, a Washington-based group formed by labor unions to push for minimum wage ballot measures that has since branched out to promote what it calls “economic fairness” issues.

The Fairness Project played a pivotal role in the 2017 vote to expand Medicaid in Maine. In addition to the Nebraska campaign, the group is working this year on Medicaid expansion ballot measures in Idaho, Montana and Utah.

Roughly 11 million people nationally have gotten coverage through the expansion of Medicaid.

The Nebraska measure would require state officials to submit a coverage plan to the federal government to insure certain residents who make less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level — about $16,750 a year. The federal government would then have to approve the plan.

It also would prevent state officials from placing “additional burdens or restrictions” on residents who qualify. Some Republican-led states have sought to impose work and other requirements on able-bodied adult recipients as part of their proposals. Critics argued that Medicaid isn’t a jobs program.

In addition to getting 85,000 signatures, organizers also had to demonstrate statewide support by gathering signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties. Petition circulators were able to meet that threshold in at least 45 counties, said campaign manager Meg Mandy.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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