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

PORTLAND, Maine — Lawyers on both sides of Maine’s court fight over Medicaid expansion said on Thursday that roughly 3,500 people have had Medicaid applications denied since a July deadline for coverage in the expansion law approved by voters last year.

That rough figure comprises about 5 percent of the 70,000 Mainers projected to be eligible for expanded coverage, which hasn’t moved forward amid opposition from Gov. Paul LePage and has been wending its way slowly through state courts since April.

Last month, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ordered the Republican governor’s administration to submit a simple expansion plan to the federal government. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services did that quickly, but the plan was accompanied by a letter from LePage asking the federal government to reject it.

Key questions of the lawsuit from Medicaid expansion advocates — including whether the state can implement a law without dedicated funding from the Legislature and when Mainers should be eligible for expanded coverage — haven’t yet been answered, and the high court sent them back to Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy.

Lawyers were back before Murphy in Portland for the first of two days of hearings aimed at resolving those issues and a new motion from advocates to hold the state in contempt of the high court’s order because of LePage’s letter asking the plan to be rejected.

Nothing was decided on Thursday, when Murphy and lawyers for the LePage administration and Maine Equal Justice Partners, the progressive group running the legal challenge, took testimony from a legislative analyst and a national expert on referendum processes.

The sides have agreed to several key facts. One of them, which was aired for the first time on Thursday, is that roughly 3,500 Mainers who have applied for coverage citing the expansion law have had applications denied and hundreds of them have filed appeals.

LePage has said the state will deny applications until expansion is funded by the Legislature, though the voter-approved law said coverage under expansion provisions would begin July 2. Coverage could apply retroactively, but that hasn’t yet been decided by the courts.

“All of this has meant that this process has just gotten strung out and taken much longer than we have hoped,” said Robyn Merrill, the executive director of Maine Equal Justice Partners.

The Legislature endorsed a start-up funding plan earlier this year that died after a governor’s veto. Advocates have said existing funds could be used to pay for the state’s share of expansion; the LePage administration argues that dedicated funding is required to implement it.

Luke Lazure, a health policy analyst for the Legislature’s fiscal office, testified about an estimate he prepared earlier this year saying the Medicaid fund would likely be able to fund expansion before running out of money in May 2019. That would be about a month before the end of this fiscal year and it would likely require a stopgap budget from the next Legislature.

Proponents used that to argue that there was enough money to proceed with expansion now, but Patrick Strawbridge, an attorney for the LePage administration, retorted that the Legislature has explicitly funded past expansions and “that should have been the case” with this one.

The parties will reconvene Friday in a Portland court to take more testimony in the core issues of the case. Lawyers for both sides said after the court hearing on Thursday that they were negotiating over the contempt motion.

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Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after time at the Kennebec Journal. He lives in Augusta, graduated from the University of Maine in 2012 and has a master's degree from the University...