AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- After trying five times to pass a major expansion of Maine's Medicaid health insurance program through the Legislature, advocates have decided to go straight to the voters. Supporters of Medicaid expansion on Wednesday submitted 67,700 petition signatures to the Secretary of State, to force a statewide referendum vote.

The Medicaid expansion battle has been fought repeatedly in the State House over the past four years. On five occasions expansion actually passed the Legislature, but there were never enough votes to overcome a veto by the Governor, and the measures failed. Leads of the coalition called "Mainers for Health Care" said at a press conference they are convinced expansion would be good for the state and the economy and would allow an estimated 70,000 people to have health insurance, who currently cannot afford it. The group's leader, Robyn Merrill of Maine Equal Justice Partners, said they estimate expansion would cost the state an additional $50 million per year. But she said the state would receive an extra $500 million in federal Medicaid matching funds, and that it would all result in an added 3,000 stealth care jobs in the state.

Opponents, however, challenge the cost estimate. A Maine DHHS spokesperson said the agency's estimate was the expansion would cost Maine $315 million us over the first five years, and questioned the likelihood of the federal government providing $500 million.

Republican Rep. Deb Sanderson (D-Chelsea), a longtime opponent of Medicaid expansion, also suggested it wasn't affordable. Sanderson also said with the current debate in Washington about the Trump administration repealing the Affordable Care Act, it would be unwise for Maine to take a risk on expanding Medicaid under the provisions of the ACA.

Merrill, however, said the time was right for the expansion and said she expects Medicaid funding will continue to be available regardless of the debate over the ACA.

The petition signatures must first be verified by the Secretary of State. Assuming there are enough signatures to qualify, the question will be voted on by the Legislature and would then be sent to voters in November.