AUGUSTA, Maine — Democrats on Tuesday said they’d introduce a new bill to expand Medicaid to cover more than 70,000 Mainers and that the political wind is at their backs to override an inevitable veto by Gov. Paul LePage.

“We feel confident that the momentum is going in the right direction,” said House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, at a news conference Tuesday in the State House. Eves and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Anne Haskell, D-Portland, argued fiercely for the benefits of Medicaid expansion. They called on the governor to “stop making excuses to deny and delay health care.”

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” the federal government would cover 100 percent of the cost to expand Medicaid for three years before incrementally decreasing the federal contribution to 90 percent. Expansion would cover roughly 50,000 single adults without children with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty threshold, and prevent about 25,000 Mainers from losing coverage on Jan. 1 as a result of the state not accepting the federal dollars.

In May, LePage vetoed a bill that linked Medicaid expansion to repaying Maine’s outstanding Medicaid debt to hospitals. The governor then vetoed legislative Democrats’ second Medicaid expansion bill, LD 1066, in June. The law had passed with majorities in the Maine House and Senate but amid strong pressure from LePage and GOP legislative leaders, Democrats weren’t able to muster enough Republican support to override the governor’s veto.

Eves, citing internal polling numbers, said public support for the expansion is building and that Democrats would be able to gather the political muscle on both sides of the aisle to override a veto.

House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, who opposes the bill, took that statement in stride.

“They said that last year,” he said in an interview.

The question of Medicaid expansion likely will be a flashpoint in the second regular session of the Legislature this winter, leading into the elections next fall, when every seat in the House and Senate, plus the governorship, will be up for grabs.

Republicans are painting the expansion as reckless spending and a burden on taxpayers and say it will push disabled and elderly Mainers to the “back of the line” by focusing on the young and poor. Democrats frame expansion as a moral obligation to provide medical care to those who can’t afford it otherwise. Both sides are using the argument as a political tool to beat up on partisan opponents.

“Medicaid expansion is being brought to us by the same liberal big-spenders who gave us our hospital debt and our annual welfare deficits,” said Assistant House Republican Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, in a prepared statement. “Their welfare spending spree needs to stop. If we’ve learned anything over the past decade or two, it’s that Medicaid is already the costliest, most out-of-control program in state government.”

On Monday, LePage cited a study from the Annals of Family Medicine showing that the expansion would result in higher enrollment for young men, smokers and heavy drinkers, saying it illustrates why his administration opposes the expansion.

At the news conference Tuesday, Haskell recalled her uncle Philip Merrill, who she said was a fighter pilot in World War II. He often would drink as a way to cope with the horrors of war and returned to the U.S. an alcoholic, she said.

“He came home from that war in a bottle,” Haskell said. “We didn’t turn our back on him, and I wonder why the governor thinks he can pick and choose who should and shouldn’t get health care. … For some reason, he thinks if you drink or smoke, you don’t deserve to see a doctor. What if you’re overweight, or wear glasses? Who is he, or the government, to decide who does and doesn’t get health care?”

Each side also comes to the battle with their own numbers about how much the expansion would or wouldn’t cost the state. Democrats point to the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, which has estimated that Maine would spend $570 million, or 3.8 percent, less on the state’s Medicaid program if access was expanded as allowed by the federal government, while the federal share would increase $3.1 billion, or 11.4 percent. The foundation also predicted the influx of money would boost jobs and economic activity.

Republicans call the potential savings short term and point to administrative costs that the state would incur as a result of expanded Medicaid eligibility. They point to figures from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services — an agency under the governor’s executive branch — which state that expansion would cost the state in the long term.

“We want all Mainers to have access to quality, affordable health care, but not if it heaps more of burden on hard-working Maine taxpayers and families,” LePage said in a release Tuesday. “Expansion of Medicaid welfare would not be free. Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services has shown the expansion of welfare would cost Maine millions of taxpayer dollars in the short term and then $150 million in each budget after that. There is no free lunch.”

The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal and Program Review said that the effort earlier this year to expand Medicaid would have resulted in a net savings of about $3.7 million. However, as the federal share of expansion costs declined to 90 percent, Maine would pick up the difference. In 2017, for example, Medicaid expansion would cost the state $5.2 million. That figure would increase each year.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

Mario Moretto

Mario Moretto has been a Maine journalist, in print and online publications, since 2009. He joined the Bangor Daily News in 2012, first as a general assignment reporter in his native Hancock County and,...