Nebraskans in health coverage gap back petition to expand Medicaid

LINCOLN — Marea Bishop’s life with a chronic pain disorder and without health coverage has become a vicious cycle. 

The Bellevue woman can’t afford the medications and treatment that could improve her health. Without better health, she can’t work enough to pay for health insurance or reopen her photography business.

And she can’t qualify for Medicaid because Nebraska policymakers have refused for six years to expand that program to cover people like Bishop.

On Friday, Bishop told her story at the launch of a petition drive aimed at letting Nebraska voters decide whether to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income people.

“I’m tired of sitting back and just worrying what could happen to me,” she said. “Now I’m speaking up … so thousands of Nebraskans like me can have our best chance at a healthier life.”

Leaders of the Insure the Good Life campaign filed initial petition documents with the Secretary of State’s office Friday.

They are proposing a new law that would expand Medicaid, as allowed under the federal Affordable Care Act, to cover an estimated 90,000 more Nebraskans.

Those covered would be single adults and couples without minor children, as well as parents and disabled people with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

The effort can expect to face opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has fought against previous Medicaid expansion measures. 

“The governor opposes expanding Medicaid under Obamacare here in Nebraska, which would expose our state budget and Nebraska taxpayers to great risk,” Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said this week.

Expansion “would preference able-bodied individuals over our most vulnerable citizens in our existing program,” he added.

Amanda Gershon of Lincoln, one of the petition sponsors, said the effort is personal for her.

In 2016, she spent a week in the hospital, fighting for her life, when multiple health problems overwhelmed her body. She had no health coverage at the time, she said.

She was able to qualify for Medicaid only after being declared disabled. The coverage has allowed her to get needed surgeries, medications and treatments. 

“I want everyone in Nebraska to have that chance, too, to get better,” Gershon said. “I’m here because I know what it’s like to suffer and not be able to get help.” 

The other petition sponsors are former State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, who introduced several Medicaid expansion bills in the Legislature, and Dr. Rowen Zetterman of Omaha, dean emeritus of the Creighton University School of Medicine.

Groups endorsing the drive include several health care associations and advocacy groups. 

Organizers have until July 5 to collect about 85,000 valid signatures to put the measure on the November ballot.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, who introduced this year’s Medicaid expansion proposal in the Legislature, said he expects the group will use volunteer and paid petition circulators to get the job done. 

So far, 32 states, including Iowa, have expanded their Medicaid programs. Voters in Maine last year approved a ballot measure to expand Medicaid in that state.

Utah and Idaho are in the midst of ballot initiatives, while a drive is underway in Montana to continue the expansion in that state past its 2019 sunset date.

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