HELENA – An initiative to expand Medicaid coverage to 70,000 low-income Montanans won’t be decided by voters this year, as supporters said today they don’t have enough signatures to qualify it for the November ballot.

Kim Abbott, president of Healthy Montana Initiative, the organization behind Initiative 170, said the group expects to be several thousand signatures short by Friday’s deadline.

While supporters are disappointed that “the clock ran out” on the effort, they’ll continue to push to have the 2015 Legislature accept the federal money that would expand Medicaid coverage in Montana, she said.

“We know that Montanans overwhelmingly support expanding Medicaid for 70,000 Montanans,” Abbott said. “We want to be clear that our work will not end until 70,000 of our friends and neighbors have the health care they need and deserve.”

Supporters of I-170 had until Friday to gather 24,175 signatures of registered Montana voters on petitions to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

Abbott said the volunteer effort had collected about 25,000 unverified signatures by mid-week, but that at least 30 percent of signatures in a petition drive usually turn out to be invalid, so organizers thought they needed about 32,000 raw signatures to ensure I-170 qualified. That number can’t be reached by Friday, she said.

Expansion of Medicaid, the state-federal program that pays medical bills for the poor, is a key part of the federal health-care overhaul – and a hot political potato in Montana.

Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, 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.

The federal government would pay nearly all the costs of the expansion through 2016 and then gradually reduce its share to 90 percent by 2020. The state would pick up the remaining costs. The state Legislature must authorize the expansion.

Last year, Republican majorities in Montana’s Legislature blocked expansion bills supported by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, Democratic lawmakers and some Republican legislators, saying it would end up costing the state too much money and was an unnecessary expansion of “Obamacare.”

Since then, health-care and business lobbies, the Bullock administration and some legislators have been working on possible Medicaid-expansion proposals that could be presented to the 2015 Legislature.

A coalition of health-care, labor, low-income and citizen groups also started the push for the voter initiative that became I-170. However, the group was beset by delays, twice having to resubmit the measure for review because of legal and language problems. Supporters couldn't start gathering signatures until late March and paused the effort another week during a legal challenge by opponents of the Affordable Care Act.

The deadline for turning signatures into county election offices for verification is Friday. Abbott said supporters won't be turning in their signatures for review, because they're certain it's not enough.

Abbott said the delays “were simply too much,” and that if supporters had a few more weeks, they probably would have succeeded.

However, Abbott also acknowledged that had I-170 made it on the November ballot, it likely would have faced a well-funded effort to defeat it.

State Republican Party officials have said they planned an organized campaign against it and private, conservative political groups also had indicated they might get involved in an anti-initiative campaign.

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