AUGUSTA, Maine — Proponents of a referendum that would seek to force Maine to expand eligibility for its Medicaid program say they collected enough signatures on Election Day to put the question onto a ballot in 2017.

Maine Equal Justice Partners, which orchestrated a statewide signature-gathering push on Election Day, announced Thursday that the effort gathered more than 65,000 signatures from all 16 counties. Those signatures are subject to verification by municipal clerks and the secretary of state’s office, but the threshold for citizen-initiated ballot access is 61,123.

“The success of this signature-gathering effort demonstrates the strong passion of Mainers when it comes to health care,” said Robyn Merrill, executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners, which is an organization that advocates for low-income Mainers. “People of all walks of life, concerned about the high cost of health care, were eager to sign the petition, making this one of the fasted signature gathering efforts in recent memory.”

Despite multiple legislative attempts, Maine has not expanded its Medicaid program under the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act, which promises to cover the cost of expansion for the first three years and then cover 90 percent of the cost into the future. Legislative efforts, mostly spearheaded by Democrats, have failed six times because of opposition by Gov. Paul LePage and most legislative Republicans, who argue it would be fiscally ruinous to the state budget.

LePage’s office did not respond to requests for reaction from the Bangor Daily News on Thursday.

LePage and most Republican legislators remain steadfastly opposed to expanding Medicaid eligibility.

The most recent effort, in April of this year, was sponsored by Republican Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, but it failed to garner enough support to override a veto. The bill passed in both chambers but was ultimately tabled. Saviello said Thursday that he hopes the prospect of a statewide vote, which he predicts would pass, will sway some Republicans.

“If we learned anything from Questions 2 and 4 this year [the surtax for school funding and the minimum wage increase], Medicaid expansion is going to pass if it goes to a referendum,” said Saviello. “If I’m sitting in the Legislature and I’m dead set against this, I’d better do something because it’s probably going to come about and I’m not going to like the results.”

Saviello said he has already submitted a bill proposal to expand Medicaid and is working with Republicans to fill in the details in a way that garners the most support. Whatever materializes is unlikely to woo more conservative Republican senators, such as Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn, who co-chaired the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee for the past two years.

Brakey said Thursday that nothing has changed for him on Medicaid expansion. He said if the issue goes to referendum, the arguments against expansion are plentiful.

“There are problems in our health care system that we need to tackle but expanding Medicaid does not help. It just masks the problem,” he said. “The problem in our health care industry is prices. As we’ve seen with other failed government solutions, we just see these government interventions driving prices higher and higher.”

Proponents of the citizen initiative gave the Legislature until Jan. 26, 2017, to enact Medicaid expansion and avoid a November 2017 referendum, but with split majorities in the Legislature there is little reason to believe the debate will produce a different result than it has in the past.

One major moving part is the fate of the Affordable Care Act following the election of Republican Donald Trump as president. Trump campaigned on a promise to repeal and replace the ACA, which would presumably take Medicaid expansion incentives off the table.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.