Medicare moves into its second half-century more important than ever

By Patsy Ouellette
The Bakersfield Californian, Aug. 6, 2015

According to my friend, Bernice Bonillas, it’s only warm bodies that drive movements. And so it was that I found myself returning from Los Angeles July 30 on a bus filled with other Bakersfield citizen activists, returning from a rally celebrating the 50th anniversary of Medicare.

First, a little history. During the Great Depression in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. As remarkable as that was considering the economic difficulties the country was experiencing, the SSA did not complete his vision. As he noted, “This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built, but it is by no means complete.” He originally wanted to include health insurance coverage.

Subsequently, in 1945 President Harry S. Truman proposed the idea of National Health Care Insurance. Defeated by the American Medical Association and insurance industry opposition, he instead introduced the idea of expanding Social Security to include health care coverage for the elderly. This, too, was defeated.

Twenty years later, on July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law. What has this landmark law meant to U.S. citizens? Rally speaker Mike Farrell, an actor and social justice advocate, reminded us that Medicare has lifted millions of people out of poverty. Since medical costs are the number one reason for personal bankruptcy claims, reducing such risks, the older population have been able to hang on to whatever family wealth they were able to accumulate over their working lives in the forms of home equity and savings.

These small nest eggs not only assisted the recipients themselves, but also could be passed down to the next generation, providing a step up via home ownership or education, opening every door across the nation to increased opportunities and a higher standard of living.

We also learned that though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination in federally funded programs illegal, it wasn’t until 1965’s Medicare law that some of those civil rights were realized. In order to receive Medicare reimbursement, hospitals needed to be integrated. Consequently, more than 1,000 hospitals began to admit black patients and extended physician privileges to black doctors.

Another speaker, Sheila Kuehl, a Los Angeles County Supervisor, introduced the overriding theme for the day, that Medicare must be protected, improved, and expanded. Protected from those who want to weaken or even dismantle it, and improved by adding broader coverage. But she left it to the next speaker to explain the last, most controversial component, expanding it.

Yes, Medicare for All was the rallying cry from Dr. Paul Song. Referencing the Hippocratic Oath he took 25 years ago, he explained that though he promised to “refrain from being part of a system that was deleterious to a patient’s health, he has felt many times that he is part of just such a system,” sharing that “35,000 people in this country die every year because of a lack of health insurance.”

In fact, I learned there are two bills pending in Congress that would dramatically expand access to health care in the United States, HR 1200, The American Health Security Act of 2015, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D- Wash., and HR 676, a bill to expand Medicare for All, introduced by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. Both bills would guarantee a full range of medical services, including primary care, dental, prescription drugs, mental health, long-term care, and place no restrictions on choice of physician or healthcare provider.

In President Truman’s message to Congress, Sept. 6, 1945, he proposed an Economic Bill of Rights, one of them was: “The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” Another was the “right to adequate protection from the economic fears of … sickness…” Seventy years later, it’s time that we Americans fully acknowledge those rights.

Patsy Ouellette of Bakersfield is a retired teacher.