By Brendan O'Brien
(Reuters) - Voters in Maine on Tuesday approved a ballot initiative to expand the state's Medicaid program under Obamacare, sending a clear signal of support for the federal healthcare law to lawmakers in the state and Washington D.C.
The approval of the ballot question in Maine comes after Republicans in Washington failed several times over the last few months to pass legislation that would dismantle the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law.
Maine has recently figured prominently in the nation's debate on how to reform healthcare. U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, helped block her party’s efforts to repeal Obamacare this year, which angered President Donald Trump.
Maine, which becomes the first U.S. state to approve Medicaid expansion by ballot initiative, is one of 19 states that has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
About 60 percent of voters in Maine approved the ballot initiative, according to the Bangor Daily News newspaper.
Tuesday's ballot asked Maine voters to approve or reject a plan to provide healthcare coverage under Medicaid for adults under the age of 65 with incomes at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which in 2017 is about $16,000 for a single person and about $22,000 for a family of two.
The state's Republican governor, Paul LePage, staunchly opposes expansion of federal health care insurance, vetoing legislation to do so on several occasions.
"I’ve said it before, "free" is very expensive to somebody," LePage said in a radio address last week.
About 70,000 residents in Maine would be eligible for the state's Medicaid program when and if state officials certify the results of the election. Lawmakers could vote to repeal or alter the referendum, much like they have recently for several citizen-initiated referendums, the Bangor Daily News reported.
"It is now the responsibility and the duty of the governor and the legislature to fully and faithfully implement this law," the state's Speaker of the House, Sara Gideon, said in a statement.
The Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review in Maine estimated that expansion of Medicaid would cost the state about $55 million and bring in about $525 million of federal money to the state each year, according to the Bangor Daily News.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Nick Macfie)