Mainers for Health Care rally outside the State House prior to Gov. Paul LePage's State of the State address, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Augusta, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration appealed a judge’s order Thursday that requires Maine to move to expand Medicaid as voters demanded in 2016.

Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton appealed the ruling and asked the state’s highest court to expedite its decision on what LePage’s office calls an “important constitutional question.”

LePage vetoed Medicaid expansion proposals five times before voters approved it in a referendum. Expansion could provide coverage to 70,000 to 80,000 low-income residents under age 65.

A state judge on Monday ordered the governor’s administration to submit a Medicaid expansion plan to the federal government by June 11.

The governor has said that before Maine expands Medicaid, lawmakers must fund the state’s share of the expansion cost under his terms, including no tax hikes.

“An appropriation is essential to implementing any major public program, and Medicaid expansion is no different,” his spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz said Thursday.

Advocacy groups sued in April to force LePage’s administration to submit the paperwork, which is the first step to eventually receiving more than $500 million a year in federal funding.

“We want them to file the paperwork with the federal government as soon as possible,” Maine Equal Justice Partners Executive Director Robyn Merrill said. “Too much time has gone by. People are eligible as of July 2. The clock is ticking.”

Hamilton said the judge’s order violates the Maine Constitution’s separation of powers, according to the notice of appeal. He also said it misreads the voter-approved Medicaid expansion law and the Maine Constitution.

Merrill said her group will fight the appeal and the LePage’s administration’s argument that it should not have to submit Medicaid expansion paperwork until the courts decide the appeal.

The lawsuit filed by Maine Equal Justice Partners and other groups contends there are enough funds in the state’s Medicaid account to get through the current budget ending in mid-2019. There also is more than $140 million in unallocated funds that the state could draw from at any time, the group said.

LePage disagrees with estimates that Medicaid expansion will immediately save Maine money, and contends the cost will grow exponentially.

While the LePage administration estimates the first year of Medicaid expansion will cost the state $58 million, separate estimates by an independent firm and the Legislature’s non-partisan fiscal office say that cost drops to roughly $30 million after savings.