In this Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, file photo, supporters of Medicaid expansion celebrate their victory in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s high court ruled on Thursday that Gov. Paul LePage’s administration must follow an earlier court order to submit a Medicaid expansion plan to the federal government, even as the justices sent significant constitutional questions about implementation back to a lower court.

The 6-1 ruling from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court is procedural, but it is nonetheless a boon to advocates’ court fight to expand Medicaid eligibility to an estimated 70,000 Mainers. Still, the issue will assuredly continue to wend its way through the state’s legal system for weeks.

Thursday’s ruling leaves key questions unresolved but may continue the slow march that Medicaid expansion has faced in Maine since before it passed in a 2017 referendum. The Republican governor vetoed expansion bills five times before then. Last month, House Republicans sustained a veto of the Legislature’s start-up funding plan.

While lawmakers have squabbled over that and other issues, two key deadlines under the expansion law have come and gone. By April 3, the state was to file a simple expansion plan with the federal government. Mainers were to be eligible for expanded coverage as of July 2.

The LePage administration has argued it doesn’t have to file the plan because the Legislature hasn’t successfully appropriated any money to fund expansion, but advocates have argued that the money could come from the state’s surplus, which stood at $175 million at June’s end.

Maine Superior Court Judge Michaela Murphy agreed with advocates in early June, ordering the state to submit the plan within a week. The LePage administration quickly filed a notice of appeal for that decision and asked the high court to put it on hold at least until arguments were heard in Portland earlier this month.

The high court did that until Thursday, when six members of the court joined a decision by Justice Joseph Jabar directing the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to file the plan while sending unresolved questions back to Murphy. Justice Donald Alexander dissented.

Importantly, Jabar’s decision charged Murphy with resolving “any issues that may have arisen” now that the July 2 deadline for coverage under the voter-approved law has passed. Any decision she makes could then be appealed to the high court again.

“That’s a very important step forward and we think the other questions will be satisfactorily resolved in due course and that people will start getting health care who haven’t had it,” said Charlie Dingman, a lawyer for the progressive Maine Equal Justice Partners, which is leading the lawsuit that was filed in late April after the state missed the plan deadline.

LePage spokesman Peter Steele said the governor’s legal team is “studying the decision and considering the options,” but that the decision didn’t address LePage’s stance that an appropriation from the Legislature is required before expansion moves forward.

For a roundup of Maine political news, click here for the Daily Brief. Click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics via email on weekday mornings.

Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.

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...