Fifty years ago this week, aging in America was forever changed for the better.
At the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a new law creating Medicare and Medicaid. Sitting beside him was former President Harry Truman, who would become Medicare’s first beneficiary – some two decades after he first proposed a similar health care system.
On July 1, 1966, more than 18 million American seniors joined him.
Before the passage of Medicare, a third of our nation’s seniors lived in poverty. Only half had health insurance, and for those that did, insurance usually only covered visits to the hospital. Many faced discrimination based on age, preexisting conditions, and race.
Now, thanks to Medicare, 54 million seniors and people with disabilities have access to guaranteed healthcare benefits. Medicare helped to cut the poverty rate of seniors in half by 1973—less than ten years after its passage.
Medicare completed the promise made by the Social Security Act, passed three decades earlier: that in old age, Americans won’t be on their own. We as a country have a duty to make sure that people who have worked hard their entire lives spend their twilight years with their grandchildren, not worrying about medical bills.
And Medicare was so much more than a public health bill—it was also a civil rights bill.
Before Medicare, health care in America was highly segregated. African Americans went to the hospital far less often than white Americans, and when they were admitted, they were treated to separate and substandard care.
The passage of Medicare brought the desegregation of southern hospitals. More than 1,000 hospitals were integrated in less than four months after the passage of Medicare, and the disparities in health between black and white Americans shrank.
However, our work to end disparities in health care did not and cannot end with the passage of Medicare and Medicaid five decades ago. Access to affordable health care in America remains segregated along race and class lines. The uninsured rate is up to four times higher for African Americans and Latinos than whites.
Over the past five decades we have worked to improve Medicare, and make it work even better for our seniors. Hospice care is now a covered benefit. We have added a significant number of preventive services. And the recent health care law made additional improvements to Medicare – like expanding free preventive care services and closing the prescription drug coverage “donut hole” by 2020.
Fifty years from now, I have little doubt that we will be celebrating the 100th birthday of an even stronger Medicare.