Petition drive to expand Medicaid in Nebraska forges ahead with national group’s support

Petition drive to expand Medicaid in Nebraska forges ahead with national group’s support
The Associated Press

LINCOLN — While other petition drives have fallen by the wayside this year, an effort to expand health coverage to more low-income Nebraskans is pressing onward.

Circulators for the Insure the Good Life petition have been collecting signatures since early April, and Molly McCleery, a leader of the campaign and deputy director of Nebraska Appleseed, said the drive is going well.

“People understand the issue and, for the most part, are very supportive,” she said. “We’re on track and confident we will meet our goal.”

Drive organizers seek to put a Medicaid expansion proposal on the November ballot. To do that, they must collect about 85,000 valid signatures of registered voters by July 5.

Several Nebraska health care associations and advocacy groups are backing the effort.

But the bulk of the funding so far has come from The Fairness Project, based in Washington, D.C. The organization, launched with backing from labor, supports state ballot initiatives on such issues as expanding Medicaid, increasing minimum wages and requiring paid sick leave for workers.

Reports filed with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission show the national group has provided $338,164 in money and in-kind support to the Nebraska drive. That accounted for 93 percent of the total raised as of April 25.

Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, said the group aims to help poor and working Americans by going around lawmakers and taking issues directly to voters.

He said the group helped with a successful Medicaid expansion ballot initiative in Maine last year, as well as six successful minimum wage proposals.

The Maine Medicaid expansion measure passed with 59 percent of the vote, succeeding after Republican Gov. Paul LePage vetoed bills passed by the Legislature five times. Advocates sued LePage last week for holding up implementation of the voter-approved expansion by insisting on certain funding provisions.

In Nebraska, legislative proposals to expand Medicaid have failed six years in a row, in the face of stiff opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts and, before him, Gov. Dave Heineman.

The two GOP governors argued that expansion would be unaffordable and would favor able-bodied Nebraskans over the vulnerable citizens currently covered by Medicaid.

The result, Schleifer said, is that 90,000 low-income Nebraskans have been left without health coverage. They include single adults and couples without minor children, as well as parents and disabled people with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

“These are incredibly hardworking people who want to put food on the table and … to know that the next health care crisis is not going to be ruinous,” he said. “I think the argument is not what the governor wants but what Nebraskans want.”

McCleery said advocates had been thinking about a ballot initiative for some time in Nebraska, given the difficulty of getting anything through the Legislature. Discussion intensified after seeing the success of the Maine initiative.

Nebraska organizers also could look to the state’s own experience with a 2014 ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage to $9 per hour. That effort, undertaken before The Fairness Project was established, passed with 59 percent of the vote and succeeded where several legislative attempts had failed.

Amanda Gershon, a petition sponsor and volunteer circulator, said she has been collecting signatures in a variety of places around Lincoln, including the People’s City Mission, the College View Farmer’s Market and shopping malls.

She said most people have been receptive, and those who decline to sign generally are not registered to vote.

Federal law has allowed states to expand their Medicaid coverage since 2014 as part of the Affordable Care Act. The Medicaid expansion portion of the federal law has survived all attempts to repeal the broader law.

So far, 32 states, including Iowa, have expanded their Medicaid programs.

Petition efforts supported by The Fairness Project seek to add Utah and Idaho to that number. Organizers in both states already turned in signatures to put proposals on the ballot. Signature-gathering is underway in Montana to keep that state’s expansion going after its 2019 sunset.

In Nebraska, the Medicaid petition is the last ballot initiative standing. Organizers called a halt to a property tax petition drive last week, while petitions seeking to legalize marijuana never got off the ground.

Schleifer expressed optimism about the prospects for all four Medicaid expansion proposals, based on polling that has been done to date.

“When you ask people, they want more health care, not less,” he said.