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After seven years of frustration and failure in the Legislature, supporters of Medicaid expansion on Thursday celebrated the conclusion of an initiative petition drive that appeared to be successful in handing the decision over to Nebraska voters.

More than 133,000 Nebraskans signed petitions to place the Medicaid proposal on the November general election ballot, supporters said, a figure that appears to provide plenty of cushion for the 84,268 valid signatures that will be required after a review by county election officials.

Meg Mandy, the initiative campaign manager, said the signatures contained in 128 boxes that were carried into a downtown news conference include the names of at least 5 percent of the registered voters in roughly half of Nebraska's 93 counties, far exceeding the required 38-county benchmark.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln and former Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, leaders in the unsuccessful efforts to win legislative approval, led the celebration while dozens of volunteers gathered in front of stacks of boxes that will be handed over to the secretary of state's office.

The initiative proposal would extend Medicaid coverage to an estimated 90,000 Nebraskans, most of whom are described as the working poor. They do not qualify for Medicaid now, but cannot afford to purchase health care coverage on their own.

The proposal would bring an estimated $1 billion in federal funding flowing into the state while requiring a state match that officials in the administration of Gov. Pete Ricketts have said would accumulate to some $800 million over a 10-year period.

Morfeld and Campbell said expansion of Medicaid coverage would spur economic development and help secure the future of rural hospitals in Nebraska as well as address basic health care needs for Nebraskans before ailments spiral into serious health challenges that may result in far more expensive and uncompensated care.

"It's hard to stay healthy without health care insurance," Morfeld said.

"It's unconscionable to not support one another," Campbell said.

"People without health care insurance wait far too long" to receive treatment, she said, and the result is that "illnesses progress" into more serious and expensive challenges.

Andy Hale, vice president of advocacy for the Nebraska Hospital Association, joined in support of the initiative proposal, suggesting the issue is important to "neighbors, friends and families (and has been) politicized way too much."

Shannon Casey, the mother of a 25-year-old daughter with epilepsy, said "in 33 states in this country my daughter would still be able to receive health care," but she cannot access affordable health care in Nebraska.

Reacting to the announcement, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bob Krist said he'll vote for the initiative.

"The expansion of Medicaid makes fiscal sense and it makes moral sense," he said.

"Fiscally, all Nebraskans are already paying taxes to the federal government that would help fund this program and the choice to enact it ensures those tax dollars come back to our state."

Matthew Trail, spokesman for the governor's re-election campaign, said: "Governor Ricketts has expressed his concern for those currently served by Medicaid should the program be expanded.

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"The decision ultimately rests with Nebraska voters," Trail said. 

The vast majority of current Medicaid recipients are children and the elderly.

The secretary of state's office said it would process the petitions for submission to county election officials for verification during the next two weeks. County officials then would have 40 days to validate signatures.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have expanded Medicaid and the issue is in play now in Idaho and Utah as well as Nebraska.

The Nebraska petition drive has cost more than $919,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Almost $850,000 in funding has come from The Fairness Project in Washington, D.C., whose donations come primarily from a health care workers union.

Financial supporters in Nebraska have included Nebraska Appleseed and the Nebraska State Education Association. 

Nebraskans adopted an initiative to increase the state minimum wage in 2014. That proposal was approved on a lopsided vote of 311,000 to 212,000. 

To gain enactment, an initiative needs to receive approval from at least 35 percent of the total vote as well as a majority.  

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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Political reporter

Don Walton, a Husker and Yankee fan, is a longtime Journal Star political and government reporter.

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