Happy Birthday Medicare! Reflecting On 50 Years Of Healthcare

Happy birthday Medicare! Today you are 50… which means you’re still not eligible to receive your own benefits. On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law as amendments to the Social Security Act of 1935, finally achieving over 30 years worth of effort. The health care benefits were discussed as early as Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, though he hesitated to act on them, because he didn’t want to mess up his New Deal reforms. When Harry Truman took office, he got extremely excited about the concept of Medicare, but when he brought it up, it went over about as well as a fart in church.

When Johnson signed the law into effect, he wanted to acknowledge the work of the men who came before him, which is why he selected Truman to be the first Medicare recipient. That year, 19 billion followed his example.

So what is Medicare? From the way it’s talked about on the news, it’s the devil’s pet project. But it’s actually so much more. Medicare is a federally supported health care program eligible to individuals 65 and over. The majority of funding comes out of everyone’s paychecks each month, and goes to support 55 million people currently. To be eligible, you or your spouse must be 65 or older, you must have been a legal resident for at least five years, and you have to have paid into the payroll for at least 10 years.

Over the years, Medicare has expanded and changed, such as in 1972 when it was opened up to younger individuals with specific disabilities, like those who are on dialysis or need transplants. In 2003, President George Bush gave the program a huge boost, by expanding it to include prescription drugs. However, now his brother, Jeb Bush, wants to repeal it, and replace it with a program that essentially provides government funds to individuals who will then go and buy private insurance. It goes hand-in-hand with his plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and put health care back into the hands of private companies.

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If Medicare was contentious, it’s got nothing on its big sister Medicaid, which currently provides health care to 70 million low income Americans. Together, they eat up about $505 billion dollars, or 14 percent of our Federal budget. And although the ACA expands and strengthens the two programs, they are not the same thing. The crucial difference is that the ACA makes health care affordable and accessible to all Americans, whereas Medicare and Medicaid only apply to very specific sections of the population—almost 40 percent, to be precise.

Considering the debates and court cases that it took to bring the ACA into fruition, it’s unfathomable that Medicare and Medicaid were ever created to begin with, no less 50 years ago. But Johnson relied heavily on the Democratic wave that came after the Kennedy assassination, and when he was re-elected in 1964, the Democrats took control of Congress, effectively making these amendments possible.

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But today, the prevailing belief is that Medicare is soon to be bankrupt and inaccessible to older generations. Jeb Bush has based his Medicare statements on this, and so has Paul Ryan, who estimates that Medicare will be bankrupt by 2026. Which is bizarre considering that Medicare trustees actually believe that Medicare costs will be down. And if the well runs dry, adjustments can be made, either via taxes, or by changing benefits. It’s be done before—Ronald Reagan did it in 1983, so it’s not exactly an anathema to the conservative platform.

But while it’s fine to kick around Medicaid, even conservatives hesitate to pull the plug on Medicare. Bush was criticized for going “too right” when he talked about it, which is absolutely hysterical, given the current field. But maybe, just maybe, the concern for the elderly and the reluctance of the GOP to mess with Medicare will spill over to Medicaid as well, and these social programs of the past will find a way to see their 65th birthday before they retire for better things.

Image: GlynLow/Flickr

Hope Racine
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