Maine voters passed a measure to expand Medicaid on Tuesday, giving about 70,000 Mainers health care coverage and making the state the first in the nation to approve Medicaid expansion at the ballot box.

With 75 percent of Maine precincts reporting, the measure was favored by 59 percent of the voters.

Support for the measure appeared to be strongest along the coast and in southern Maine, but it also was backed by voters in parts of more conservative northern Maine. A string of towns along the state’s northern border with Canada backed the measure – in Fort Kent, for instance, 55 percent of voters approved of Medicaid expansion.

About 200 Medicaid expansion supporters gathered at Bayside Bowl in Portland Tuesday night, where an exultant mood prevailed.

“We did it! We really did it,” Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said in a victory speech. “Tonight we are celebrating and you’ve earned it. People need more health care, not less.”

Merrill said the referendum enjoyed wide support throughout Maine, including rural areas, small towns and in Maine’s cities.

And, the message should spread beyond the state’s borders, she said.

“This should be sending a message to the 18 other states that haven’t yet expanded Medicaid,” Merrill said. “This will have national implications.”

Question 2 has attracted national attention in an off-year election, with no presidential vote, no congressional races and an ongoing effort by the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

Planned Parenthood in Portland was a staging area for a last-minute get-out-the-vote effort by Mainers for Health Care, the group supporting Medicaid expansion.

Volunteers were rolling in and out of the downtown Portland offices, mostly being dispatched to Westbrook to knock on doors of supporters and personally remind them to vote if they hadn’t already.

Katherine Fitzpatrick, 24, of Scarborough said she has a personal motivation to volunteer, as her father has been battling cancer since 2004, and their family’s out-of-pocket health care costs are tens of thousands of dollars every year.

“This is the least I can do,” said Fitzpatrick, who worked the phones and helped organize volunteers Tuesday. She’s been knocking on doors since July. “I’m feeling pretty good about it passing. People have gotten used to having health care and they’re not just going to let it go. People are now realizing health care is an individual right.”

KEY COMPONENT OF ACA

Opponents sent out an Election Day email urging Mainers to reject expansion.

“It is clear that out-of-state interests are trying to force the Maine people into another failed Medicaid expansion. We expect Maine people will remember the nursing home cuts and hospital debt which resulted from the last expansion. The only way to stop that is to vote no on Question 2,” said Brent Littlefield, spokesman for the Welfare to Work PAC.

Medicaid expansion, while voluntary for states, is a key component in how the ACA provides coverage to low-income Americans. In Maine, about 70,000 adults who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $16,643 for a single person and $22,412 for a family of two, will be eligible for Medicaid.

The measure, proponents said, would help strengthen the finances of the state’s rural hospitals and create as many as 3,000 new jobs. But opponents have likened the program to welfare for able-bodied, working-age adults and said it will make it more difficult to steer state money to disabled Mainers who are on waiting lists for aid.

A legislative study said expansion would cost the state $93 million through 2019, while bringing in $1.2 billion in federal funding. Supporters gathered voter signatures to put the measure on Tuesday’s ballot, including 65,000 signatures on Election Day 2016 alone.

Maine is one of 19 states that refused to expand Medicaid under the ACA, and Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, is a steadfast opponent who has vetoed five expansion bills that passed the Legislature.

OPPONENTS CITE BUDGET PROBLEMS

The state expanded Medicaid during Democratic administrations in the 2000s, predating the ACA, and opponents blamed the previous expansion for causing state budget problems.

Voters who were against the referendum cited Maine’s previous experience expanding Medicaid as a reason to oppose.

“The only ones making out were the insurance companies,” said Kevin McCartan, an expansion opponent who voted “no” at the South Portland Community Center.

But Nicole Gallagher, also voting at the community center, said, “I looked at the income levels and thought that these people should have access to health care. I actually think everyone should have access to health care.”

Erin Elizabeth agreed, saying Medicaid expansion is “great.”

“We need this. The insurance companies are robbing us blind,” Elizabeth said.

Scott Clark, 67, voting at Cape Elizabeth High School, said he supported Medicaid expansion because he believes in “having more universal health care coverage.”

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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