Chris Hastedt, left, Robyn Merrill cheer during an announcement while awaiting results at the Mainers for Health Care election night party, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Portland, Maine. Voters in Maine will decide if they want to join 31 other states and expand Medicaid under former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act. It's the first time since the law took effect that the expansion question has been put before voters. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — The chief justice of Maine’s high court delayed the implementation of Medicaid expansion, at least until oral arguments in a legal battle on the issues are held in mid-July, rankling advocates by stretching past a statutory deadline for coverage.

Chief Justice Leigh Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a one-page document on Wednesday that preserves the status quo in the legal fight between Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and advocates of expanding Medicaid to an estimated 70,000 adults with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Nearly three in five Maine voters backed a law in 2017 that directed the state to submit a simple expansion plan to the federal government April 3 and start covering eligible Mainers by July 2. Advocates sued after the Republican governor’s administration missed the April deadline and now it will also miss the July deadline, saying it is in clear violation of the law.

LePage is an expansion opponent who has five times vetoed legislative efforts to expand eligibility as allowed by the Affordable Care Act. He has resisted it since the referendum last year and the administration’s legal team has argued that he doesn’t have to implement a law that the Legislature hasn’t funded.

Earlier this month, a lower-court judge ordered the LePage administration to submit the expansion plan by June 11. The state later appealed that to the high court and Saufley’s order delays it until oral arguments are held in that matter in Portland on July 18.

Charlie Dingman, a lawyer for Maine Equal Justice Partners, a progressive anti-poverty group leading the expansion fight, said in a statement that it was “a troubling delay” but that it also “tells us nothing about how the case will turn out.”

On Wednesday, both chambers of the Maine Legislature initially approved a $35 million plan to fund administrative and implementation costs of expansion. Advocates framed it as a move that nullified LePage’s excuses to not implement expansion. However, 58 Republicans voted against it in the House of Representatives and it is subject to the governor’s veto pen.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...