THE BLOG
07/30/2009 11:57 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

44 Years Of Medicare Success


by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ian Millhiser and Nate Carlile

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On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Social Security Act, part of which included Medicare, a measure to provide low-cost health insurance for elderly Americans. At the time, Johnson called the bill "the most revolutionary and most beneficial measure for older Americans since we passed Social Security itself back in 1935." "They will no longer have to suffer from misery and neglect and depend upon their relatives because they themselves cannot afford the cost of modern treatment," Johnson said. He inaugurated the "Great Society" program at the White House signing ceremony by enrolling former President Harry Truman as the first beneficiary and presenting him with the first Medicare card. "I predict that 30 years from today, this bill will be a welcome and permanent part of our nation's heritage that no representative would ever dare repeal," Johnson said. "Why? Because it represents the moral principle that we just must not neglect in their age those who have given a lifetime of service to their country." Johnson was right. Forty-four years later, Medicare has dramatically improved access to quality health care for the nation's seniors, allowed them to live longer and healthier lives, and has become one of the country's most popular government programs.

MEDICARE'S SUCCESS: Since the advent of Medicare, "the health of the elderly population has improved, as measured by both longevity and functional status," said one study published in the journal Health Affairs. In fact, according to the study, "life expectancy at age 65 increased from 14.3 years in 1960 to 17.8 years in 1998 and the chronically disabled elderly population declined from 24.9 percent in 1982 to 21.3 percent in 1994." Leaders of the Commonwealth Fund wrote in May that, "compared to people with private insurance, Medicare enrollees have greater access to care [and] fewer problems with medical bills." The report added that this finding is significant when considering that those Americans on Medicare represent a demographic that is more likely to be in poor health and to have lower incomes. Prior to Medicare, "about one-half of America's seniors did not have hospital insurance," more than 25 percent "were estimated to go without medical care due to cost concerns," and one in three were living in poverty. Today, nearly all seniors have access to affordable health care and only about 14 percent of seniors are below the poverty line.

CUSTOMER SATISFACTION: A recent Commonwealth Fund survey found that "elderly Medicare beneficiaries reported greater overall satisfaction with their health coverage." Medicare is so popular that most Americans support expanding its coverage to Americans aged 55 to 64. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, "over half of Americans (53 percent) 'strongly' support such a proposal and an additional 26 percent say they support it somewhat, totaling 79 percent backing." Similarly, a Health and Human Services Department-commissioned study released in June found that "56 percent of enrollees in traditional fee-for-service Medicare give Medicare a rating of 9 or 10 on a 0-10 scale," while "only 40 percent of Americans enrolled in private health insurance gave their plans a 9 or 10 rating." "The higher scores for Medicare are based on perceptions of better access to care," the National Journal noted, commenting on the surveys, adding that "[m]ore than two thirds (70 percent) of traditional Medicare enrollees say they 'always' get access to needed care (appointments with specialists or other necessary tests and treatment), compared with 63 percent in Medicare managed care plans and only 51 percent of those with private insurance."

FEARMONGERING NEVER CHANGES: Conservatives "bitterly opposed" efforts to provide elderly Americans with access to health care. Ronald Reagan argued in 1961 that if Medicare wasn't stopped, "one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free." George H. W. Bush called the plan "socialized medicine," and Barry Goldwater asked, "[h]aving given our pensioners their medical care in kind...why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?" Today's rhetoric from opponents of health care reform -- particularly the public option -- is eerily similar to the fearmongering of Medicare. While Republican scare-tactics today contain a regular diet of "socialism" charges, many conservatives and Republicans have even claimed that Americans will die if Congress passes a bill with a public option. "One in five people have to die because they went to socialized medicine!" Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) complained. "Last week Democrats released a health care bill which essentially said to America's seniors: drop dead," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL). While some conservatives are frightening the American public, right-wing "astroturf" groups are mobilizing anti-reform movements, and other conservatives are simply trying to block reform for political purposes. "If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) claimed. On MSNBC last night, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) recognized these similarities in scare-tactics and urged Congress to move forward with real reform that contains a robust public option. "I go back to 40 years ago when the Medicare bill passed. People like Bob Dole, Strom Thurmond, Donald Rumsfeld, Gerald Ford, as members of Congress, they all opposed it. The fact is, in those days, the Democrats moved forward. They didn't worry about we have to have X number of Republicans. Their mission was we're going to get a good Medicare bill," Brown said.