AUGUSTA (AP) — A Maine court said Thursday that the state has until Feb. 1 to roll out a voter-approved Medicaid expansion long blocked by Gov. Paul LePage, who said he worried how the coverage would be funded.
The ruling by Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy extends the original Dec. 5 deadline for the state to adopt rules implementing the expansion for eligible Mainers who applied starting July 2.
Outgoing Republican LePage had appealed and requested a stay of Murphy's November decision laying out the original deadline. Murphy's decision Thursday denied his request for a stay.
The judge said the LePage administration has "persisted in hyperbolic claims of fiscal calamity" that Maine would face under an expansion.
Messages seeking comment were left with LePage's office on Thursday.
Democratic Gov.-elect Janet Mills promised on the campaign trail she would immediately expand Medicaid once taking office in January. Maine will still have to hire and train more than 100 staffers to handle new applicants.
Murphy's decision ensures the new administration will roll out the Medicaid expansion "so that it's done right," said Maine Equal Justice Partners Executive Director Robyn Merrill, who led the campaign for increased coverage.
LePage vetoed Medicaid expansion proposals five times before state voters approved expanding coverage to at least 70,000 more low-income residents in a referendum in 2017.
The voter-approved Medicaid expansion law didn't include a funding source for Maine's share, and LePage has blocked expansion over his financial concerns.
Murphy's Nov. 21 decision found the LePage administration has "failed and refused to comply with" the voter-approved expansion and said that Maine can use existing Medicaid funds for Maine's share of expansion costs.
Supporters of Medicaid expansion sued LePage's administration this spring when the state missed a deadline to file an expansion plan that would eventually allow it to receive more than $500 million a year in federal funding.
Mills, who is currently attorney general, declined to represent LePage in the lawsuit, and the legal bills for outside counsel have topped $200,000, according to a state database of governmental finances.
The governor eventually submitted a plan under a court order.
Maine has enough existing Medicaid funds to cover expansion costs through May 2019, according to the Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal office. But the LePage administration says that the money could run out faster if enrollments exceed expectations.
Mills has said she will "absolutely" propose a plan to fund Maine's share.