Medicare Turns 50: Familiar Opposition in 1965, Essential and Continuing to Evolve Now

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. Former President Harry S. Truman is seated at the table with President Johnson. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. Former President Harry S. Truman is seated at the table with President Johnson. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.

On this date in 1965, exactly 50 years ago, Medicare (part of the Social Security Amendments of 1965) was signed into law by President Johnson. The debate over government-sponsored health insurance is not new, and opposition to the creation of Medicare was similar to the opposition to the Affordable Care Act and driven by many of the same organizations and arguments.

According to a timeline at SocialSecurity.gov, Congressional hearings on the topic occurred as early as 1916, with the American Medical Association (AMA) first voicing support for a proposed state health insurance program and then, in 1920, reversing its position. A government health insurance program was a key initiative of President Harry Truman, but, as with the Clinton health initiative several decades later, it didn’t go anywhere because of strong opposition from the AMA and others.

AJN covered the topic in an article in the May 1958 issue after a health insurance bill was introduced in 1957. Yet again, one of the staunchest opponents was the AMA. In the September 1958 issue, “at the request of the American Medical Association,” AJN published an article by the AMA’s general manager explaining the AMA’s opposition. Then (as in recent years we continue to see from opponents of both Medicare and the ACA), the alternative plans proposed by the AMA and others were weak and lacked comprehensiveness. By contrast to the AMA’s position, in 1958 the American Nurses Association (ANA) formally expressed support for federal health insurance for older Americans.

Medicare continues to evolve in numerous ways, and will face unprecedented challenges in the coming years as the number of seniors continues to increase. Medicare has its flaws and waste and inefficiencies, and some of the quality measures it uses to decide compensation rates for hospitals are controversial with nurses and others. There is always room for improvement, always negotiation among competing parties, never enough money.

But some very positive news came out this week about steep reductions in Medicare patients’ mortality and hospitalization rates and in costs for hospitalized “fee-for-service” Medicare patients.

So it’s complicated, as might be expected. But where would be without Medicare? It might not be pretty.—By Shawn Kennedy, editor-in-chief, and Jacob Molyneux, senior editor

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Editor-in-chief, AJN

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