LINCOLN — Voters stand a good chance of being able to decide in November about expanding Medicaid coverage to about 90,000 low-income Nebraskans.

Insure the Good Life turned in more than 135,000 signatures on a Medicaid expansion petition Thursday , some 60 percent more than the number needed to qualify for the fall ballot.

Buoyed by the numbers, organizers called Thursday the first day of their campaign to get the measure passed.

“A ‘yes’ vote for this initiative underscores our Nebraska heritage of supporting and caring for each other,” said former State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, one of the petition sponsors. “We need to work very hard until November.”

But opponents also are starting to make plans.

Jessica Shelburn, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said her group intends to spend as much time working to educate voters about the downsides of Medicaid expansion as proponents plan to do in pushing the positives of the idea.

“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,” she said.

The Insure the Good Life petition proposes a 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.

Among those who would gain coverage is Ashley Anderson, a 25-year-old Omaha woman whose mother, Shannon Casey, spoke at a press conference Thursday.

Casey said her daughter has epilepsy, which prevents her from working full time but is not bad enough that she qualifies as being disabled. The jobs she has held do not offer health insurance for part-time workers but, as a single adult without children, she is not eligible for Medicaid.

As a result, she has gone six years without a needed checkup by a neurologist. She relies on need-based clinics to get blood work done so she can keep up her prescriptions.

“As a mother, it breaks my heart to see my daughter do everything in her power to contribute to our community, to be part of the workforce and yet be treated like her life doesn’t matter,” Casey said.

Other Medicaid 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, then-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.

On Thursday, Matthew Trail, Ricketts’ re-election campaign spokesman, indicated that the governor would take a more hands-off approach if the Medicaid expansion measure makes the ballot.

“Gov. Ricketts has expressed his concern for those currently served by Medicaid should the program be expanded,” Trail said. “The decision ultimately rests with Nebraska voters.”

His Democratic opponent, Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, endorsed the proposal, saying it makes fiscal and moral sense for the state.

He said it would bring in $1 billion of federal funds, money paid by Nebraska taxpayers that now goes to other states that have already expanded Medicaid. It also would reduce the burden of uncompensated care, which increases insurance premiums.

“It doesn’t make sense to deny health care services to 90,000 hard-working Nebraskans who are currently unable to afford health care of their own,” Krist said.

To make the fall ballot, the petition must have 84,268 valid signatures, or 7 percent of Nebraska’s registered voters. The total must include the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters from at least 38 counties.

The Medicaid petition collected about 50,000 more signatures than the number needed, providing a sizable cushion if some signatures are declared duplicate or invalid. County election officials have until mid-August to check the signatures against voter rolls.

Meg Mandy, campaign manager for the petition, said the total includes signatures from each of the 93 counties in Nebraska and more than the 5 percent threshold from about half the counties.

The three-month Medicaid expansion drive gathered about as many signatures as a 2014 petition to increase Nebraska’s minimum wage. The previous effort turned in 134,899 signatures after seven weeks of collecting. Of those, 89,817 were verified by county election officials.

Insure the Good Life has spent more than $919,000 on the Medicaid expansion effort so far.

The bulk of the funding has come from the Fairness Project, a national group based in Washington. The group gave $851,510 in money and in-kind support to the Nebraska drive as of June 26. Other top donors include the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Nebraska State Education Association, a statewide teachers union.

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.

Correction: A petition drive to increase Nebraska’s minimum wage was in 2014. A previous version of this story gave the incorrect year.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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(10) comments

Hjalmer Anderson

Great news, but Nebraskans have to get out and vote for it if they want it to happen.

SUSAN KABALA

Medicaid expansion will have the Federal government sharing more of the cost for able-bodied individuals than for the aged and disabled (those most in need). Therefore, in the future when a program needs to be cut to save tax dollars, this will likely hurt those who need the care the most by targeting their benefits, since the state share is higher. Medicaid expansion will cost more for the new enrollees, because they have neglected health issues in favor of their other needs. They tend to have higher cost than their insured counterparts. There is also a woodwork effect, where people who already are eligible but have not filed come out of the woodwork and file for Medicaid. The Federal share of the expansion has declined from 100% and will end up at 90%. This increases the cost to the states. Nebraska does not have the budget to pay for this. The federal share for regular Medicaid is 50-75%. There are variations in the federal share for certain services and administrative actions that are outside the scope of this comment. The talk about these expansion proponents being the ones who care is very misguided and false. - Joel Kabala

Hjalmer Anderson

So in your view we just let the working poor suffer and die, right? Shame on you. We're already spending the money to care for these folks. Just because they don't have insurance doesn't mean they don't get sick and the costs find their way to all of us. There's no way to avoid the consequences of sick people, and leaving them without insurance coverage is far more expensive than caring for them in a timely manner.

SUSAN KABALA

I don’t see how you read that into my response. This discussion is about Medicaid. We should not have a plan that will fail the disabled people whom the founders of Medicaid originally intended to protect. The working poor do need coverage, but under a different kind of plan, with different financing. There is already a point where the poor enter the system. That is the TANF coverage. The expansion population makes more money than that. Joel

DANIEL BRANDT

Rational thought (you) against feelings. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

SUSAN KABALA

You are wrong, and I do not see how you read your accusation into my response, which was based on observations of the program and its financing. Medicaid was originally designed to protect the poor and disabled. The working poor need access to health care, but Medicaid expansion as it is written into the ACA, such that it can hurt the poor and disabled, is not the right way to go about it. - Joel Kabala

Hjalmer Anderson

Medicaid was a program designed to help support medical care for the poor. By definition, the disabled had no income so fit the definition. Be clear, low income working Nebraskans are poor, just not quite as poor as those already in the program. As for your wish to start a separate program with separate financing for this potential new group of recipients, that's wasteful. The goal of government should be to provide services at the least cost. A separate program would mean more bureaucracy and duplicate costs. That's exactly the wrong direction. Americans already are wasting billions of dollars on overlapping programs and because of that we have the most expensive and among the poorest healthcare in the Western world.

SUSAN KABALA

Actually, a separate program does not mean a new one. Once again you have inferred your interpretation into my response. Working poor should be part of the design for workers, not Medicaid. It should protect everyone (to avoid spreading uninsured costs to society) yet also preserve the maximum freedom possible. There are too many facets to debate all of the issues here. Medicaid expansion as it is written would favor the working poor aver the disabled, which is just outright wrong. - Joel Kabala

BOB JONES

Bottom line is that government needs to get out of the healthcare business. Although America has by far the best healthcare in the history of the world, government is slowly destroying the system and created the problems we enjoy today; high costs, slow down in R&D, and most importantly enabling able bodied workers to become reliant on the government for everything. Go back to building roads, jails, and the military. Stay out of our lives, leaches. Seeing what a real leader can do for a country now.

Hjalmer Anderson

Sadly, you're misinformed. America does indeed have the highest costs in the world. Medical costs are about twice our nearest competitor in the Western world. Health care results are tracked in most countries and in all Western democracies based on objective metrics like life expectancy. Depending on who's doing the measuring, we come in somewhere between 17th and 37th in the world in actual results, mostly because of how the bottom half of our population fares. For those with resources, America has the best, but for average American their chronic health issues get neglected. . Facts matter.

Welcome to the discussion.

Please keep it clean, turn off CAPS LOCK and don't threaten anyone. Be truthful, nice and proactive. And share with us - we love to hear eyewitness accounts.

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