A measure to expand Medicaid in Maine, which would give about 70,000 people health care coverage, was approved by voters Tuesday night, making the state the first in the nation to approve Medicaid expansion at the ballot box.
With more than 60 percent of Maine precincts reporting, the measure was favored by 59 percent of the voters.
Support for the measure appeared to be strongest along the coast and in southern Maine, but it also was backed by voters in parts of more conservative northern Maine. For instance, in Fort Kent on the Canadian border, the expansion was favored by 55 percent of the voters.
About 200 Medicaid expansion supporters gathered at Bayside Bowl in Portland Tuesday night, with the early mood festive.
With the “yes” vote up big, expansion supporter Kathy Phelps, a Waterville hairdresser, said she is looking forward to getting the care she needs. Phelps, who is uninsured, said she needs an oxygen tank for her COPD.
“I’m just so ecstatic. Finally Mainers, hard-working Mainers, will get some help that they need,” Phelps said.
Question 2 has attracted national media attention in an off-year election, with no presidential vote, no congressional races and an ongoing effort by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Planned Parenthood in Portland was a staging area for a last-minute get-out-the-vote effort by Mainers for Health Care, the group supporting Medicaid expansion.
Volunteers were rolling in and out of the downtown Portland offices, mostly being dispatched to Westbrook to knock on doors of supporters and personally remind them to vote if they hadn’t already.
Katherine Fitzpatrick, 24, of Scarborough, said she has a personal motivation to volunteer, as her father has been battling cancer since 2004, and their family’s out-of-pocket health care costs are tens of thousands of dollars every year.
“This is the least I can do,” said Fitzpatrick, who worked the phones and helped organize volunteers on Tuesday. She’s been knocking on doors since July. “I’m feeling pretty good about it passing. People have gotten used to having health care and they’re not just going to let it go. People are now realizing health care is an individual right.”
Opponents sent out an Election Day email urging Mainers to reject expansion.
“It is clear that out-of-state interests are trying to force the Maine people into another failed Medicaid expansion. We expect Maine people will remember the nursing home cuts and hospital debt which resulted from the last expansion. The only way to stop that is to vote no on Question 2,” said Brent Littlefield, spokesman for the Welfare to Work PAC.
Medicaid expansion, while voluntary for states, is a key component how the ACA provides coverage to low-income Americans. In Maine, about 70,000 would become eligible for Medicaid depending on how the state votes Tuesday.
The measure, proponents said, would help strengthen the finances of the state’s rural hospitals and create as many as 3,000 new jobs. But opponents have likened the program to welfare for able-bodied, working-age adults and said it will make it more difficult to steer state money to disabled Mainers who are on waiting lists for aid.
A legislative study said expansion would cost the state $93 million through 2019, while bringing in $1.2 billion in federal funding. Supporters gathered voter signatures to put the measure on the Tuesday’s ballot, including 65,000 signatures on Election Day 2016 alone.
Maine is one of 19 states that has refused to expand Medicaid under the ACA and Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, is a steadfast opponent who has vetoed five expansion bills that passed the Legislature.
The state expanded Medicaid during Democratic administrations in the 2000s, pre-dating the ACA, and opponents blamed the previous expansion for causing state budget problems.
Voters who were against the referendum cited Maine’s previous experience expanding Medicaid as a reason to oppose.
“The only ones making out were the insurance companies,” said Kevin McCartan, an expansion opponent who voted “no” at the South Portland Community Center.
But Nicole Gallagher, also voting at the community center, said, “I looked at the income levels and thought that these people should have access to health care. I actually think everyone should have access to health care.”
Erin Elizabeth agreed, saying Medicaid expansion is “great.”
“We need this. The insurance companies are robbing us blind,” Elizabeth said.
Scott Clark, 67, voting at Cape Elizabeth High School, said he supported Medicaid expansion because he believes in “having more universal health care coverage.”
Supporters of expansion of Medicaid in Maine celebrate their apparent victory at the polls on Election Day at Bayside Bowl in Portland. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)