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.