On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law. Fifty-two years later, both programs stand as shining examples of government at its best. Over the last half-century, Medicare and Medicaid have efficiently provided access to high quality, affordable health care to seniors, people with disabilities and others who qualify.
Our nation should, at long last, build on these successful programs by expanding their coverage and benefits. We should ensure that every American, from cradle to grave, has access to high quality, affordable health care as a matter of right.
Outrageously, while we fight for universal health insurance, we are in danger of losing the foothold towards the goal of universality that these two vital programs have provided. Republicans in Congress and the White House think that the best way to wish Medicare and Medicaid “happy birthday” is to kill both programs. It is clear that their recent failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act and destroy Medicaid in the process has not ended their quest to take health care away from millions of Americans so that private, for-profit insurance companies and their multi-millionaire CEOs can get even richer.
Conservatives have opposed the concept behind Medicare and Medicaid since long before they existed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt initially intended to include universal, government-provided health insurance in the Social Security Act of 1935. But the forerunners of today’s Republicans were vehemently opposed, so he was forced to abandon the idea to save the rest of the bill. His successor, Harry Truman, took up the mantle and made a valiant effort to pass universal health care. Truman, too, was blocked by right-wing politicians and corporations.
Lyndon Johnson, a pragmatic and shrewd politician, was not going to let the same thing happen to his own health care proposal. He and his allies decided that it was best to start incrementally — to focus on seniors and low-income Americans, where the need was greatest. Johnson’s intention was always for these programs to be a starting point that could be expanded until every American had affordable, high quality health care.
Unfortunately, soon after those landmark accomplishments, American politics took a rightward, anti-government turn. Richard Nixon did expand Medicare to cover Americans with disabilities, but after that, progress stalled for decades. That changed in the Obama administration, when Democrats expanded Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. Finally, Johnson’s vision was moving closer to reality.
But Republican backlash was swift and brutal. Despite the harm inflicted on millions of their own people, over a dozen GOP led states turned their back on federal dollars and refused to expand Medicaid. Denying Medicaid expansion wasn’t enough for the Republicans, though. Donald Trump ran on promises to protect Medicare and Medicaid, along with Social Security, but those are proving to be just more Trump lies. Now that the GOP has control of Congress and the White House, they are determined to end Medicare and Medicaid entirely.
Their first attack on Medicaid was Trumpcare, the so-called “health care” bill that was actually just a plan to take people’s health care away to fund tax breaks for the wealthy. While often misleadingly described as an “Obamacare repeal bill,” Trumpcare’s cuts to Medicaid didn’t just end the program’s expansion. It cut overall funds for the program so deeply and so radically changed the program’s structure, that Medicaid as we know it would have been destroyed. The goal was to use the cover of repealing and replacing Obamacare to also repeal and replace the Medicaid portion of Lyndon Johnsoncare!
Fortunately, the American people rose up in massive protest against Trumpcare, and thankfully, it has now been defeated in several iterations — although we must remain vigilant, for this Zombie destroyer-of-health-care has risen from the dead over and over. Furthermore, a second plan for massive cuts to both Medicare and Medicaid is already on the horizon, in the form of the House Republican budget.
That plan would slash Medicare by $487 billion and Medicaid by $1.5 trillion. It raises the Medicare retirement age, the exact opposite of what we should be doing as Americans in their early sixties face crippling health care costs. Even worse, it ends the program entirely by privatizing it so that seniors would get an inadequate voucher and be forced to purchase insurance on the private market. A program called “Medicare” would still exist, but it would bear no resemblance to today’s guaranteed benefit.
The good news is that the Trumpcare fight has shown the power of the Resistance. Despite control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, Republicans lacked the political muscle to pass their bill destroying Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. As long as the American people stay watchful and engaged, all of us, together, will be able to beat back future attacks on Medicare and Medicaid as well.
At the same time that we continue to resist, we should also push for our competing vision. Medicare was intended to be simply the first step toward Medicare for All. Half a century ago, we took the first and hardest step — covering seniors and people with disabilities, the people with the highest average medical costs. It is well past time to lower the Medicare age until everyone is covered.
Democrats should honor their party’s legacy, and fight to protect and expand Medicare, as they have successfully expanded Medicaid through the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, and protected it through the defeat of Trumpcare. If they carry that banner loudly, proudly, and collectively going forward, voters in 2018 will see which Party is fighting for them, and which Party is fighting for their donors, which Party understands that health care should be a right, and which Party thinks it is a privilege for those wealthy enough to afford it.
Democrats need to make it clear that they are the Party that will make the vision of guaranteed health care for all Americans — President Lyndon Johnson’s vision, that began the day he signed Medicare and Medicaid into law — a reality.