A petition drive to place Medicaid expansion before Maine voters is nearly complete, with an announcement expected Thursday by the group organizing the effort.

Ann Woloson, policy analyst for Maine Equal Justice Partners, an Augusta advocacy group that organized the signature drive, said the effort has been “hugely successful.”

Woloson said many of the more than 60,000 signatures needed to put Medicaid expansion on the ballot were collected on Election Day, but volunteers fanned out and collected more this week. Volunteers were gathering signatures Tuesday at Monument Square in Portland.

Gov. Paul LePage has repeatedly vetoed Medicaid expansion, and attempts to override his veto have fallen short. Maine is one of 19 states that have not expanded Medicaid.

Ballot measures have become an increasingly popular way to initiate laws in Maine – four were approved in November. The state currently operates with a divided government. Democrats control the House with a narrow majority, and Republicans rule the Senate with a one-vote majority, while LePage, a Republican, heads up the executive branch.

When the petition effort was announced in October, Woloson said it was more likely that it would be on the ballot in 2018 rather than 2017, but was circumspect about timing when asked Tuesday, saying those plans were still being discussed internally. There are no statewide elections in odd years in Maine, unless a referendum is placed on the ballot.

Woloson has said that Maine Equal Justice Partners would continue to support legislative efforts to approve Medicaid expansion, which would insure an estimated 80,000 Mainers.

AFFORDABLE CARE ACT IN JEOPARDY

The LePage administration has argued that Medicaid expansion is too expensive and would strain the state budget, a claim disputed by Democrats. The Legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review estimated the state would spend $93 million in state tax dollars on expansion through 2019, but receive nearly $1.2 billion in federal funds.

Woloson said Tuesday that even though President-elect Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress are promising a repeal of the Affordable Care Act – which would eliminate Medicaid expansion if approved – the law may yet survive.

“There’s some uncertainty, there’s no question about it,” Woloson said. “But the ACA is still the law of the land.”

Woloson said she was heartened that U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has stated publicly that she has reservations about repealing the law without a suitable replacement. Collins told the Portland Press Herald in a Dec. 2 interview that her “number one” goal for any repeal effort would be to protect people who have purchased ACA marketplace insurance from losing their coverage.

Collins, who opposed the law, is a key vote in the Senate, with Trump becoming president on Jan. 20. In a closely divided Senate, it would only take three Republican senators to derail efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has made statements similar to Collins’ about needing a replacement plan in hand before voting to repeal the law.

“We’re really optimistic she’s going to stick to her statement and remain levelheaded, as she always has been, and not just pull health care away from tens of thousands of people in Maine,” Woloson said. About 74,000 Mainers have obtained individual insurance through the ACA marketplace.

PRAISING BENEFITS OF EXPANSION

Tina Kartika, 24, of Portland, who signed the petition Tuesday in Monument Square, said she believes Medicaid expansion needs to happen.

“Coverage is the first step for access to care,” Kartika said. “It will be great for Mainers to get that privilege to have health insurance. We think of health insurance as a right, but unfortunately it’s still a privilege in the United States.”

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, vice president of clinical affairs at the University of New England, said Medicaid expansion is worth doing. “In general, the data nationally is showing that for states that expand Medicaid, health outcomes are improved, access to health care is better, and there’s improved revenue for health care providers,” Mills said.