Hospitals and health care advocates begin effort to collect signatures.

A group of Mississippi doctors, nurses, patients, small business owners, non-profits, health advocates and hospitals have joined together to campaign for Medicaid expansion on the ballot.

“For too long, Mississippi has sent our tax dollars off to Washington only to watch that money go to states like California and New York to pay for their healthcare instead. That needs to change,” said Dr. John Gaudet of Hattiesburg, who filed the initiative. “As physicians, we want to bring our tax dollars home to take care of our patients here — just like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma have all done. It’s time to let the voters decide.”

Initiative 76 is required to obtain 106,190 signatures in order to be placed on the ballot.

Governor Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn have talked repeatedly against the effort to expand Medicaid, both men expressing concern over the long term impact to the state’s budget. Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney who favors the expansion of Medicaid has spoken out against this Initiative 76, calling it a bad idea and urging the hospitals and the Mississippi Hospital Association to end its campaign to amend the state constitution for this matter.

RELATED: Insurance Commissioner Chaney says Medicaid initiative “is a bad idea”

However, those in favor of the expansion say that the state’s decision not to expand has hit six of Mississippi’s rural hospitals particularly hard. They were all forced to close their doors in recent years. They also assert that more hospitals are at risk of closure.

“Medicaid expansion is critical to keeping these rural hospitals open, and that’s something we all need — whether you have insurance right now or not,” said Tim Moore, president of the Mississippi Hospital Association. “When a member of your family is having a heart attack, a stroke or is injured on the farm, you can’t afford to drive long distances to get emergency care.”

The Mississippi Hospital Association was one of the first organizations to back the proposal for a ballot initiative this year. Others include: NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, ACLU of Mississippi, Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Mississippi Center for Justice, and Mississippi Health Advocacy Program.

RELATED: Mississippi Hospital Association puts support behind ballot initiative to expand Medicaid

One resident of Amory, Mississippi, Jonathan Smith would be eligible for Medicaid if expansion were approved.  Smith has been battling a rare cancer of the nervous system the past four years, struggles with pain daily, and has had multiple procedures, including brain surgery, to remove cancerous tumors.

“Doctors try to work with me. They bill me for what I would pay with a normal copay, and they put the rest straight to collections. Family members try to help with a few hundred dollars here and there, but I have no way to pay all these thousands upon thousands of dollars back. Nor would anyone else in my situation. People should be able to see a doctor and catch diseases like mine early, and when people are battling cancer, the last thing they should be worried about is if they can afford the treatment. They should be focused on getting better,” said Smith.

Those who support the expansion say the state could save more than $800 million in the first two years.

If you would like to read the full initiative presented and approved by the Secretary of State and Attorney General’s office CLICK HERE.