The 50th Anniversary of MedicareJuly 25, 2015
This week marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the landmark legislation that established Medicare and Medicaid, almost certainly the most important social-insurance programs in US history.
To commemorate this important event, Kinnser is pleased to share an except from Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, with permission from the author––historian and Director of the LBJ Presidential Library, Mark K. Updegrove.
At the top of President Lyndon Johnson’s legislative agenda in 1965 was Medicare, a federally funded insurance program to provide low-cost medical and hospital care for America’s elderly under Social Security. Half of the country’s population over age sixty-five had no medical insurance, and a third of the aged lived in poverty, unable to afford proper medical care; Johnson believed it was high time to do something about this.
Shortly after his November election win, he told Health, Education, and Welfare’s assistant secretary, Wilbur Cohen, to make Medicare the administration’s "number one priority." On January 4, Johnson put the issue front and center in his State of the Union message (full text); three days later he pressed for passage of Medicare, issuing a statement to Congress demanding that America’s senior citizens "be spared the darkness of sickness without hope."
Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to seriously consider a federal health insurance program. As Congress churned out New Deal legislation, Roosevelt advocated inclusion of a federal health insurance component in his Social Security Act of 1935, before dropping it to avoid jeopardizing the bill’s passage. Fourteen years later, Harry Truman sent the House a bill that would offer health insurance to those age sixty-five and older, but it was blocked by an intractable Ways and Means Committee. Kennedy tried, too, sending a comparable bill to Capitol Hill in 1962, where it missed passage in the Senate by a few votes.
In each case, the American Medical Association (AMA) was the chief culprit in killing the legislation, spending millions to brand the concept as "socialized medicine," an ambiguous characterization that nonetheless made it intrinsically un-American. Conservatives also cast a wary eye. Actor Ronald Reagan, a darling of the growing conservative movement and soon-to-be California gubernatorial candidate, warned that such a program would "invade every area of freedom in this country" and would, in years to come, have Americans waxing wistful to future generations about "what it was like in America when men were free."
But sixteen years after Truman’s efforts were derailed by an unwilling Congress, Johnson believed "the times had caught up with the idea." On July 30, 1965, Johnson traveled to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, where the eighty-one-year-old Truman, lean and bent with age, his wife, Bess, in tow, watched Johnson sign Medicare into law.
Proclaiming the thirty-third president the "real daddy" of Medicare, Johnson awarded President and Mrs. Truman the first two Medicare cards, numbers one and two. "He had started it all, so many years before," Johnson wrote of Truman later. "I wanted him to know that America remembered."
Excerpted from Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency with permission from the author Mark K. Updegrove.
Want to learn more about the history of the Medicare Bill signing? Here are some cool sites to explore:
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