PORTLAND (AP) – Backers of a single-payer health care initiative, led by three former gubernatorial candidates, hope to collect enough voter signatures to place the issue on Maine’s referendum ballot 18 months from now.

“It’s clear that we need this,” activist Jonathan Carter said Thursday at a news conference. “We need this for our citizens, and we need it for our businesses.” Carter and Pat LaMarche, both of whom were gubernatorial nominees of the Green Independent Party, and Chris Miller, who challenged Gov. John Baldacci in last year’s Democratic primary, joined in a call for campaign volunteers.

Organizers need to collect at least 55,000 voter signatures to place the question on the November 2008 ballot.

Campaign leaders offered few details Thursday on how the proposed plan would work and how it would be paid for. Comparing their initiative to the Canadian system, they said they are seeking “publicly financed, privately delivered health care.”

A single-payer system, the leaders said, would be good for many businesses, making Maine more competitive economically.

The single-payer campaign comes nearly four years after Baldacci signed into law his Dirigo Health program, intended to expand the ranks of the insured. That plan has fallen far short of its targets and the administration is drafting changes in the law.

An independent poll in 2002 by Market Decisions of South Portland showed that 57 percent of Maine people favored the concept of a universal single-payer system.

Andrew Coburn, director of the Institute for Health Policy at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, said any successful reform will have to address rising health care costs.

Regardless of the specifics of the proposal, he said a referendum campaign will spur public discussion.

“I think it’s very good and healthy that citizens have the opportunity to discuss these issues,” Coburn said.

Among the campaign’s first volunteers was Steve Dunn of Bangor, who said he has no health insurance.

“When you’re sick, you should be able to see a doctor,” Dunn said. “I don’t think anybody should be denied health care in this, the wealthiest country on Earth.”

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