Medicare’s Anniversary Reminds Us The Impossible Is Possible

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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 [1948], 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.


  • Aquifer

    ” …whether health care is a right may be debatable, but it assuredly fulfills a basic human need …”

    Seems to me the measure of a decent society is the extent to which basic human needs achieve the status of “rights” such that the society feels itself obliged to provide them ..

    So when do we get to the point where we actually take the Const seriously when it says one of its purposes is to “promote the general Welfare” ….

    A word of caution – an unspoken theme seems to be that as more Ds are signing on in the House – all we need to do is give Congress, and the Pres. back to the Ds and things will be hunky-dory – but the Ds had Congress and the Pres in ’09 and “universal healthcare” became a slush fund for insurance companies with the ACA … I think a truer measure of where the Ds (including that honorary D, Sanders) stand is the fact that not one of them has introduced HR676 as a Sen bill … and when they had an opportunity to vote on it when it was dropped in their lap as an amendment during the debate on the Rs “skinny bill” – NOT ONE voted for it

  • DHFabian

    One thing that went wrong with the liberal push for “Medicare for All” is that, unsurprisingly, it has been addressed by media only from the middle class perspective. The middle class is less than half the population. Add in that a good many of us who are still doing alright still oppose the Democrats’ anti-poor agenda.

    Medicare for All, without Medicaid, is coverage for some. Very low wage workers can’t afford the Medicare premiums, etc., and the US has slowly been transitioning to low wage jobs for years.The elderly poor and the disabled rely on dual benefits, Medicare/Medicaid. Medicaid covers the Medicare premiums, provides prescription coverage, etc. It also goes toward rent subsidies for assisted living apartments for this group — a far preferable, far less costly option to nursing homes.

    Get Democrats to get honest about these issues.

  • DHFabian

    In the US, we really have no codified “human rights” standards. Human rights have “been in the eye of the beholder” here. That said: The US did eventually ratify the UN’s UDHR. The UDHR lists the most basic human rights as “food, shelter, and medical care” — even for the jobless poor in the US. Obviously, today’s Americans disagree, and ended basic poverty relief. Our prison system (as another example) stands in striking violation of human rights standards, etc. And as we all know, the US routinely violates international human rights around the world.

    In short, the US actually doesn’t support the very concept of “human rights.”

  • Robert Hodge

    If people (YOUNG and Old) didn’t know this already they SHOULD by now. Single Payer/Medicare for All/Universal hellthcare is the only reasonable option for this problem, period. Everyone In, No One Out. What kind of a “Patriotic” “America” would be against taking care of (at LEAST!) its young and elderly poor, but has no problem taking (Very) good care of its wealthy (whether they know it or not!) Priorities people…priorities.

  • Robert Hodge

    Please tell me, if you are “doing alright” yet still oppose the Democrats’ anti poor agenda, what this Democratic ‘anti poor agenda’ is, and why you oppose it? I don’t see an “anti poor” democratic agenda. I see Dems proposing S O M E T H I N G and Republicans fighting against it. Whatever it ends up being called “MC for All or Medicaid period, I don’t care. IT NEEDS TO COVER EVERYONE ALL THE TIME FOR BASIC HEALTHCARE NEEDS. Every One In, No One Out. You seem to be parsing out the mechanics (medicaid pays for this/that) when THAT isn’t the overarching issue the issue is Priorities. I know there are issues with Obamacare that can and (now) hopefully will be the precursor to SP/MCFA or whatever…but as a country, we are STILL paying the highest in the world for ‘mediocre at best’ basic Emergency Room care while Insurance/Pharma monetize the scam. There seems to be little to no ‘deceit’ on the part of principled people (who are mostly Democrat) favoring the same thing Republicans CLEARLY oppose. Just look at the votes. And speaking of votes, you MUST be aware of the harrowing process that was taken up by Obama in order to even BEGIN this in ’09 (hence Obamacare being named for it as a slur and moniker of fame). I was as pissed as the other Dems. when Pelosi took the “public option” off the ‘table’, and THAT was to mollify Republican obstruction which as you may know (and still is!) relentless! Maybe some Dems are complicit (I’m talking to you Pelosi!) but on the whole, they are in support of eventual Single Payer/MCFA/Obamacare “and son” or whatever iteration sanity brings to the topic..

  • Robert Hodge

    I don’t disagree, (see my comment to DHFabian above) and I’m relatively aware of the seeming haplessness of the Democratic mechanism, but I’d like to think that the opposition to a “Skinny Bill” when it was ‘dropped in their laps’ was not contingent on opposing or supporting a Senate version of HR676. There may have been a ‘poison pill’ dressed up as its opposite. Sometimes I think this is how they sabotage the other side. I believe Bernie is about to introduce said legislation (at least that’s what I’ve heard…) and I think it would be “Karmically” ironic that we get SP/MCFA passed through THIS Congress (I know, call me a romantic!) and under (over?) THIS “President”. If I have to be on one “side” (D vs. R) on this, (and yes I’m painfully aware of THAT futility) I’ll choose the D, at least they try.

  • Robert Hodge

    They don’t support the concept of “human rights” because they are too busy wrapping themselves in the “Patriotic” flag and distracting the LIV (low info voter) into voting against their own interests in the name of “maybe YOU someday can and will be rich, and you don’t want those moochers taking all your tax dollars”….

    Healthcare as a commodity (free market) will always value PROFIT over People. Government has a BIGGER role to play HERE than in probably a HOST of other areas where it shouldn’t. No one wants to ‘shop for the best/lowest ambulance’ while they are “debilitated on the side of the road” or facing unexpected health issues. We DO need structured pricing that favors competition (which is EXACTLY what we DON’T have…free market my ass) but for coverage and cost – we’re not doing it right. On ANY level.