The move to expand is backed by the state’s hospitals, as well as advocates for the poor and a large portion of Maine’s law-enforcement community.

“Increasing access to MaineCare coverage means increasing access to mental health counseling, drug addiction treatment and counseling and preventive health care, providing measurable cost-savings and beneficial health outcomes across Maine,” Saviello said during a news conference at the State House.

Saviello’s Senate district includes Farmington’s Franklin Memorial Hospital, which could stand to benefit financially from a MaineCare expansion.

Saviello said an expansion in health care coverage would save money in the long haul because it is far less expensive to provide preventive care than it is to provide health care after a person becomes sick or stricken with life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

Saviello said he paid for a poll that suggests 58 percent of Mainers support expansion and he believes it’s the humane thing to do.

Farmington Police Chief Jack Peck, Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols Sr. and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry joined Saviello in Augusta on Tuesday. Merry and Peck spoke in favor of the expansion and said that the Maine Sheriffs Association and the Maine Chiefs of Police Association are backing Saviello’s proposal.

“It’s no surprise to everyone here in this room this morning that we are dealing with an increase in drug-related crime,” Peck said. “As our communities and state work to address this increase in crime, we are also regularly confronted with extremely heartbreaking experiences as a result of drug addiction.”

Peck, speaking on behalf of the police chiefs association, said he had witnessed drug overdoses in his own community and believed that many of those could have been prevented had the victims had access to treatment and prevention programs.

Merry said county jails had turned into “nothing more than de facto triage treatment centers.” He said 60 percent of inmates in county jails were there for addiction-related crimes, while 40 percent suffered from mental health illnesses.  He said many inmates suffered from both addiction and mental illnesses.

“It’s time to change the way we are doing things,” Merry said. Noting that lawmakers in January passed a broad, bipartisan measure aimed at reducing the state’s opioid addiction crisis, but many said rightly that it was only a first step. Merry said ensuring that more people had access to health care was the next important for lawmakers.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration was on the attack against the bill, warning lawmakers of a massive expansion of “medical welfare.” LePage has successfully vetoed expansion five times.

Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew said that despite the federal funding, the expansion would cost taxpayers an additional $315 million over the next five years.

Saviello’s proposal marks the sixth time state lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, have tried to expand Medicaid coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act and during LePage’s tenure.

“It will be vetoed; it will absolutely be vetoed,” Mayhew said. “It is frustrating, that here we are, for once Maine has a firm financial foundation. The state and the Legislature are able to evaluate other priorities, debates that would not happen if the Department of Health and Human Services had a massive financial shortfall.”

Mayhew said that without a budget shortfall in DHHS, policymakers have been able to focus on improving the state’s economy.

“We will not be able to do that if we add 100,000 people at a cost of over $300 million,” Mayhew said. 

Supporters of the bill have said the measure would expand coverage to 70,000 uninsured Mainers and would cost between $6 million and $7 million a year.

Another study commissioned by the Maine Health Access Foundation showed Maine would save as much as $26.7 million a year by using federal funds to enhance and replace state funds already used to cover health care costs for low-income families. That study also suggests the federal funds would result in more health care jobs in Maine and a net increase to the state’s General Fund as a result of the income taxes those new workers would pay.

Mayhew said that even though the economy is improving, if the state offered a new, free health care program, people would drop the health care coverage they are paying for now.  

Mayhew also said that many of those Saviello’s measure would hope to cover are already eligible for subsidized health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Saviello said he was undaunted by the political challenge for state lawmakers, many of whom are hoping to position themselves in a favorable light with voters, of passing an expansion in an election year.

“I do the right thing,” Saviello said. “This is the right thing. I don’t care if it’s an election year or not an election year.”

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