AUGUSTA, Maine — Nearly 400 supporters of Medicaid expansion rallied Wednesday at the State House to make their case during the opening day of the 126th Legislature’s second session.

While Mainers who have lost their health care coverage or are not eligible for MaineCare without expansion told their stories, the political challenge of winning expansion this session was as clear as the broadcast from Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s television, beaming down his welfare-reform message on the assembled activists: “Maine’s Medicaid program is crowding out other spending.”

Lawmakers twice last year passed bills to accept federal funding for Medicaid expansion that supporters say would result in 70,000 additional Mainers receiving coverage through the taxpayer-funded program. But Democrats were unable to garner the two-thirds support in the Maine House and Senate to override vetoes by LePage.

This year, Democrats have again vowed to make expansion a priority. Two bills are before the Legislature, one sponsored by House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, and another by Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash.

On Wednesday, the Maine People’s Alliance, a leading liberal advocacy group, bused in hundreds of activists, who met with lawmakers to lobby for their support. Some lawmakers said it was the largest such rally the State House has seen in years.

One of those speakers was Gail MacLean, who boards horses at her stable in Gray. MacLean said she has been on Medicaid for three years, but lost her coverage on Dec. 31 as a result of the state not expanding the program, known as MaineCare in the state.

“Now I’m tip-toeing around the farm, hoping I don’t hurt myself,” she said. “My fear is that if something happens, I’ll lose what I’ve worked so hard for.”

Another man, Tom Bennie, a farmer and handyman from Whitefield, said MaineCare paid for his full hip replacement in 2010, and helped his wife recover from a heart attack shortly thereafter.

“If it weren’t for MaineCare, I wouldn’t be able to stand here today,” he said. “My health is all I have. That’s the most important thing. MaineCare gave me a sense of security.”

Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship, is co-sponsor of Eves’ Medicaid expansion bill, which legislative Republicans and LePage have vowed to defeat again this year. He called on the governor to follow the example of other GOP executives, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who in their states accepted Medicaid expansion as allowed by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

He called the showing by MPA “impressive.”

“I think it’s a real statement to the moderate Republicans to get on board,” he said. “If Gov. LePage vetoes this bill again, I expect them to support us in overriding.”

One of those moderate Republicans, Sen. Patrick Flood of Winthrop, was one of only three GOP senators to vote with Democrats for Medicaid expansion last year. On Wednesday, after speaking with a couple activists, he pledged the Legislature’s “due diligence” on the issue, but cautioned that he never makes any promises.

While Medicaid expansion is an uphill fight for Democrats, the key battle will take place in the House of Representatives. House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, has vowed opposition to the bill. On Wednesday, Assistant House Minority Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, said he was unimpressed by the showing from MPA.

“I’ve had a few conversations out there and had a chance to talk to some people,” he said. “It seems some of them didn’t know what they were asking me. I tried to talk to them about Medicaid expansion and some of them didn’t know they were here to talk about expansion. The MPA did a great job getting people here, but I don’t think they educated them enough.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and is running against LePage and independent Eliot Cutler for governor in 2014, issued a statement Wednesday in support of Medicaid expansion. Michaud urged the Legislature and LePage to accept the federal money this year.

“There is no rational explanation for the state’s unwillingness to accept these federal dollars. Only blind partisanship and extreme ideology are standing in the way, and it’s unconscionable,” Michaud said in a release.

Cutler also supports expanding Medicaid. In a statement Wednesday, he said doing so is “the right and moral thing to do and the smart thing to do. This is about saving both lives and money. Keeping people healthy enables them to live better lives and also makes economic sense for all of us. Folks without this coverage much more frequently end up in emergency rooms and hospital beds, and we all end up paying for that.”

Wednesday’s rally and lobbying was interrupted, briefly, by members of Maine Taxpayers United and the Informed Women’s Network, two conservative organizations.

About a dozen or so activists held signs protesting the proposed expansion of Medicaid and spoke with media to offer a counterpoint to MPA’s rally.

Beth O’Connor, a former Republican state representative and chairwoman of MTU, said an expansion of Medicaid in 2002 did nothing to lower the number of uninsured Mainers or decrease charity care.

“Nothing’s free,” she said. “I’m a mom and a grandmom and my kids are being saddled with additional debt. I’m worried they won’t get out ahead.”

Eves’ and Jackson’s Medicaid expansion proposals will be heard by the Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 15.

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,...