50 years ago today, on January 11, 1962, President John F. Kennedy formally endorsed the passage of Medicare, the government-funded health care program for seniors – which today enrolls approximately 48 million Americans. At the time of Kennedy’s State of the Union address, half of Americans aged 65 or older lacked health coverage, and nearly 30% lived below the federal poverty level. “Social security has long helped to meet the hardships of retirement, death and disability,” Kennedy noted. “I now urge that its coverage be extended without further delay to provide health insurance for the elderly.”
Health care has been a dominant issue in American politics for generations. Theodore Roosevelt supported including health care reform in the Progressive Party’s national platform in 1912. Franklin Roosevelt considered the exclusion of a national health program from the Social Security Act of 1935 a questionable concession. After the introduction of Congress’s first-ever national health bill, the Wagner National Health Act, in 1939, Roosevelt resolved to push for such a reform in his third term, though World War II would delay that effort until his Economic Bill of Rights campaign went underway in 1944.
But, it was Harry Truman who would most concertedly pursue universal health care. Truman endorsed the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Act, a medical plan covering doctors, nurses, laboratories, and dental care for all Americans not already covered by comparable insurance. Hopes for passage were dashed when Republicans won Congress in 1946, and as the policy battleground shifted from the hospital to the workplace during debates on the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, Truman’s push lost focus. Although he once again backed national health care in his 1949 State of the Union, Truman remarked years later that:
I have had some bitter disappointments as President, but the one that has troubled me most, in a personal way, has been the failure to defeat the organized opposition to a National compulsory health insurance program. But this opposition has only delayed and cannot stop the adoption of an indispensable Federal health insurance plan.
The greatest obstacle to government health care programs had always been the American Medical Association, which opposed all varieties of national health care proposed during the 1930s-50s. When Kennedy’s White House sought a piecemeal approach in promoting Medicare – a program intended only to aid the age group at the time likeliest to lack health insurance – it once again collided with vociferous AMA opposition. In May 1962, the Palm Beach Post reported that Kennedy viewed the argument as one between the AMA and “the people,” though the President noted confidently that “I think more and more doctors are supporting it.” At the time, Kennedy told reporters he was open to a televised debate with former President Eisenhower on Medicare. Two months later, Medicare failed in a 52-48 Senate vote, an outcome the St. Petersburg Times called Kennedy’s “biggest legislative defeat” to date.
Ultimately, Medicare would pass (with Medicaid for the indigent) as part of the Social Security Act of 1965. After resounding Democratic victories in the 1964 election, President Johnson redoubled his Medicare efforts; the Act passed 307-116 in the House and 70-24 in the Senate. Johnson presented the nation’s first Medicare card to Truman, in a nod to the former President’s efforts to reform health care.
46 years into its existence and 50 after a President endorsed its creation, Medicare faces new fiscal challenges and a daunting future of rising health costs and an expanding elderly population. President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, seeks to vastly expand health coverage by 2014 via subsidies, insurance exchanges, and more widely available Medicaid plans. But today, millions of seniors and even working-age adults fear that Medicare will be unable to pay their future health costs. It is perhaps of historical interest in this era of fiscal uncertainty to recall the spirit in which Medicare came to be, and the legacy its founders sought to establish.
Where is Medicare in the Russell Library's Collections?
The quick answer seems to be everywhere. Discussions over various proposals for medicare (or other such health insurance programs) occur in collections documenting the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s -- Richard B. Russell, Jr., Herman Talmadge, Williamson Stuckey, John Flynt, Robert Stephens, Mack Mattingly and J. Roy Rowland just to name a few.
One of my favorite parts of the Talmadge collection to search through is the Flexys series -- which is largely constituent mail divided by topic, collected from 1965 through 1980. These letters let researchers tap into what the public in Georgia was thinking about major events during this period -- and Medicare was on their minds, just take a look and see.
As always, if you have any questions about how to navigate our collections just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (706) 542-5788.