HELENA – The voter initiative to expand Medicaid in Montana is close to having enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, but a lead organizer said Friday it will come down to the final deadline next week.
“It’s going to be a push to the finish,” said Kim Abbott, president of the group supporting Initiative 170. “It’s too important not to finish strong. We’ll know next week.”
Supporters of I-170 have until next Friday to turn in at least 24,175 signatures of registered Montana voters on initiative petitions to place the measure before voters in November.
Abbot said organizers believe they’ve gathered more than 20,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, organizers of an opposing measure – Initiative 171, which would block the state from implementing any aspect of the federal health care overhaul, including Medicaid expansion – said Friday they’ll fall short of getting enough signatures to place it on the ballot.
Matthew Monforton, a Bozeman attorney, said potential financial supporters of the I-171 effort backed away after opponents filed a “frivolous lawsuit” earlier this year challenging the initiative.
The Montana Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, saying it was premature to rule on the challenge before I-171 made the ballot.
Medicaid is the state-federal program that pays medical bills for the poor. Under the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2010, states have the option of expanding Medicaid to cover everyone earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $16,100 for a single person.
If a state chooses to expand the program, the federal government would cover nearly all the expansion’s costs through 2016 and then gradually reduce its share to 90 percent by 2020.
Supporters have said expanding Medicaid in Montana would bring government-funded health coverage to about 70,000 low-income people.
Yet the 2013 Montana Legislature, led by its Republican majorities, rejected Medicaid expansion. A coalition of health, labor and low-income groups then decided to organize an initiative to put the issue before voters this year.
I-170 supporters didn’t get their petition approved for signature-gathering until April. They have until Friday to submit signatures to county election offices, which must verify the signatures and then forward that information to the secretary of state’s office for final approval.
Abbott said the effort to gather signatures for I-170 has been “an incredible, volunteer grass-roots effort,” and will continue through the weekend and next week.
Supporters of Medicaid expansion, including Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, also have talked about a possible special session of the Legislature to approve the expansion.
Bullock said Friday he’s not ruled out that option, but that he’d need support from enough Republicans to get it through the Legislature.
“One way or another, we need to get this done, by ballot or special session,” he said.