Medicare’s Anniversary Reminds Us The Impossible Is Possible
Above Photo: Medicare-for-All may be closer than many persons think. (Photo: Molly Adams)
Before the establishment of Medicare, many persons more than 65 years of age who weren’t wealthy dealt with a harrowing reality. When they became seriously ill or required a costly procedure, they possibly faced bankruptcy due to lack of health insurance or high deductibles and co-pays. Many also confronted having to go without health care because of costs, sometimes leading to a painful death because of the exorbitant price of medical care without insurance. In fact, the lack of a government health insurance program for the elderly led to seniors being among the poorest age groups in the nation.
This past Sunday, Medicare celebrated its 52nd anniversary. National health care coverage in the United States for seniors had been an elusive goal until the program was launched in 1965. For years, efforts to pass Medicare were thwarted by charges that we still hear today against the Affordable Care Act and proposals for single-payer health care. Government health care insurance for the elderly was called “communist” medicine and accused of being “un-American.” Despite his ability to get Social Security enacted in 1935 and launch other government-administered New Deal programs, President Franklin Roosevelt was not able to overcome vigorous opposition to government health coverage for seniors, and was unable to get it passed out of Congress.
It took the determined and wily President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in the post-Kennedy assassination environment, to persuade both houses of Congress to make Medicare — long a seemingly impossible dream of many advocates — a reality.
Bill Moyers was a trusted aide to Johnson and participated in Johnson’s cajoling of members of Congress. He recently wrote a commentary on his website about how Medicare came to be signed, with former President Harry Truman as its first enrollee, on July 30, 1965. After recalling the vigorous and strategic White House lobbying that led to Medicare’s passage, Moyers reflects on the lessons learned:
Watching recent events, I thought of the long and arduous process I’ve just related, the many steps that brought Medicare into being, and how I was afforded a modest role in the supporting cast.
I came away from the experience with three lessons. First, whether health care is a right may be debatable, but it assuredly fulfills a basic human need — and without it, human beings without means will live and die suffering unduly.
Second, building that more perfect union which the founders of this republic defined as the mission of government has always been slow, hard, acrimonious, frustrating, tiring and elusive, because we as individuals are ourselves imperfect and because there are always among us those predators who regard democracy as an obstacle to their avarice.
Against such realities, the only way for democracy to succeed is for enough people to take up the cause where and when they can, as so many did for Medicare and are doing now for our eroding social covenant. That’s the third lesson I learned: It is harder to build something than to burn it down, but build we must.
In recounting the passage of Medicare, Moyers commented on the recent efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act:
Now that the eight-year effort of conservatives to repeal the Affordable Care Act (itself a flawed but significant extension of the effort to help more people get decent coverage) is stalled, the next steps are crucial. Going back to the status quo — a system driven by the profit motive and rationed health care based on income — is unthinkable.
Those who support Medicare for All but view it as an impossible dream should take note of how Medicare itself appeared to be an unattainable goal for decades. It is also worth noting that Medicaid was established in the same legislation that created Medicare, thus achieving two seemingly unrealizable policy goals at once.
With the bewildering and appallingly dishonest attacks on Obamacare, single-payer health care also appears to many to be an unattainable goal. After all, Trump and the Republicans also have their eyes on dismantling Medicare and replacing it with a voucher system and other privatized options. However, the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act offers an opportunity for new ideas to take hold, including transformative ones such as Medicare for All.
An April article on Truthout reports on how support for the single-payer option is growing in the House of Representatives:
The primary Medicare for All bill has more support in Congress now than it has ever before.
John Conyers’ Medicare for All bill (HR 676), which he has introduced in each Congress since 2003, has seen a recent surge of new cosponsors — 32 since March 8 and nine on April 3 alone. As of this writing there are 93 co-signers (and counting), representing more than 48 percent of the Democratic Caucus. This is the highest number of cosponsors ever, both in terms of members and as a percentage of the House Democratic Caucus. The count is up from just 62 cosigners — 33 percent of Democrats — in the last Congress, and an average of 37 percent since the bill was first introduced in 2003.
This is an astonishing development for many reasons.
Bill Moyers, in his commentary, relates a historical fact that should inspire those who support single-payer health care in the US but find the prospects daunting. Moyers recalls how Truman was an ardent advocate of all Americans being covered by health insurance:
Running for election in his [Truman’s] own right that year , and way behind in the polls, Truman won an upset victory after demanding that health care insurance and civil rights be included in the Democratic Party platform. That same year, congressman Lyndon Johnson of Texas, whose home district was Democratic and liberal in a state turning increasingly Republican and conservative, was running for election to the US Senate. He opposed Truman’s health care plan as socialistic and was elected.
Yes, in 1948, LBJ was one of those detractors who criticized government-administered health care insurance. However, by the ’60s, Johnson had become a champion of Medicare and Medicaid. The possibility for public and political transformation lies just before us, as long we have the will to educate and inspire the public and politicians about the urgency of a single-payer system.