Meeting Medicare Again, for the First Time

I sat down at the computer with quiet anxiety. I've never warmed to the cold, iridescent screen, somehow removed from the flesh and blood life I have lived for a month short of 65 years. But the insurance consultant had said that is how it's done -- signing up for Medicare.

He'd left a note: "Type in ''. It's not hard." Oh, sure... I had recently filled out the federal FAFSA college financial aid form. Page after page of questions requiring searching my files, the computerized time limit clicking away, the gnawing feeling that if I pressed the wrong key the whole damn thing will be lost...

I got on the website, and found To Start the Application Process. The instructions were easy to follow. We estimate that completing the application will take between 10 and 30 minutes depending on the number of questions you need to answer. We'll see...

I supplied my name, Social Security number, gender, date of birth. NEXT. Address, phone, email, preferred language for contacting me. NEXT. I entered my place of birth, and citizenship. If you are unable to complete your online application for any reason, use the 'Save & Exit' option at the bottom left corner of each page.

As a test, I hit that button and before retrieving the file, fell to thinking about Medicare. I was just out of high school when it was signed into law by President Johnson. I'd grown up in a left-wing family, the son of a blacklisted writer. Opposed to the Vietnam War, I was no fan of LBJ's. But I gave him credit for Medicare: Assuring the elderly had medical care was the right thing to do. I'd read that only half of people aged 65 and older had health care coverage, and nearly 30 percent lived in poverty. How could that be, in the richest nation in history?

The "conservatives" of the day had railed against it from the time it was proposed. "Socialism!" they cried. Well, I suppose it was. Ronald Reagan said that if we didn't stop Medicare, "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." Barry Goldwater said, "Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind, why not food baskets, why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?"

I knew I was on the other side. I'd read the Declaration of Independence and Constitution (we did in school then) and agreed with the Founders that all human beings were born equal, with unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I appreciated that the Constitution's Preamble said the purpose of our government was to "form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." And I understood that only someone blinded by wealth could confuse true liberty with the "liberty" to die because you couldn't pay for medical care. In the modern world, how could a person be free to 'pursue happiness' if they couldn't afford a doctor?

Sitting in my office, I brought my application up on the screen. REVIEW AND SUBMIT.

It had taken ten minutes.

I clicked PRINT. My printer began to hum and I watched as a piece of white paper slid into the holding tray. I picked it up and read:

Benefit Application Number: 21114XPR

You have successfully started your Medicare application. We are providing you with an Application Number. The number can be used to restart an incomplete application. You will need it to check the status of your claim.

And suddenly I felt good, and happy, and grateful.

I felt good because I had been able to complete my application with the computer; and because someone in the government had taken the time and trouble to make the process comfortable, even welcoming.

I felt happy because I had just applied to be a participant in a program that I supported philosophically, and with regular deductions from my paycheck for almost 50 years, but which until that moment had remained an abstraction. I had met Medicare again, but actually for the first time: It was real; I would be enrolled. True, I would live out my last years facing inevitable health problems that come with age. But I would not do that alone. The people of the United States had generously and with moral vision seen to it that in facing illness and age I would have the help and support of the entire nation.

And I felt gratitude: To all those who came before me who in their time and place had worked, struggled and fought to lay the foundation for what now I enjoyed: The Founders, articulating the radical vision of human equality, of a government whose purpose was not to sustain and protect an aristocracy of property and wealth, but to serve the needs and interests of all people; the abolitionists and the soldiers and Lincoln, who fought to eliminate the lethal stain of slavery from our nation; the citizens who worked to end child labor and achieve mandatory public education; suffragettes who pushed until women obtained the right to vote; union organizers and their allies who worked, and bled, to achieve the minimum wage, the 40-hour week, Social Security and the right of workers to organize; blacks and whites who together fought for decades, some dying in the fight, to eliminate racial segregation; the liberal/progressive coalition that worked to establish national health insurance for the elderly; and my contemporaries today, who understand that a host of issues remain before us if we are to fulfill our nation's moral promise.

Holding my completed Medicare application, I thanked them all.