This week, we celebrated the 54th anniversary of the passage of Medicare, a program that has saved millions of lives, and protected our parents and grandparents from financial ruin. If it did not exist, would we still create it today?
The generation responsible for getting this program through Congress came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. The period of 1929 to 1945 presented them with the largest challenges to America’s continued existence since the Civil War.
The young people of this era revered both the patriotic concept of service to country and the biblical concept of taking responsibility for your neighbor’s well being. Their common political hero by an overwhelming margin was President Franklin Roosevelt.
FDR had asked them to fight the Nazis — but he also gave them a GI Bill of Rights, a collective bargaining law to deal with their bosses when they went back to work, and a Social Security pension system for when they retired.
These patriots valued community over selfishness. Volunteerism reached unprecedented levels during their lifetimes. Membership in service clubs ranging from the Elks to the Kiwanis, from their Moose Lodges to the Odd Fellows — and dozens more — flourished in the 1950s and ’60s.
And as adults, this generation demanded fair play from their democratically elected government. They are the generation that finally passed the landmark 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts.
And when it came to fiscal responsibility, they had no qualms making the wealthiest among them pay their fair share of taxes. These funds were needed to help finance common American goals like a vast interstate highway system, and putting a man on the moon.
It is no accident that the first president from their generation, John F. Kennedy, would conclude his inaugural address with the words, “Ask not what your county can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Thrust into the White House following the assassination of Kennedy, fellow veteran Lyndon Baines Johnson would complete much of Roosevelt’s New Deal — items derailed by World War II.
FDR’s original concept to cover all Americans with a single-payer public health insurance plan would become LBJ’s Medicare legislation. Unable to secure enough Senate votes for passage, Johnson downsized his approach to cover only those 65 years of age and older — with a supplemental provision covering the poorest of Americans he called Medicaid.
Signed into law at the Truman Library in Independence Missouri in 1965, Harry S. Truman and his wife Bess received the very first Medicare cards at the ceremony.
With his foot firmly planted in the legislative door of health care, LBJ was certain the rest of his plan could be passed at a later date.
But the Vietnam War, dismantling the progressive tax structures of the mid-20th century, and many other distractions shifted the nation’s focus, and promoting universal health care became an afterthought — an idea shifted to the back burner of political priorities.
What became the Affordable Care Act of 2010 was just an echo of Roosevelt’s and Johnson’s vision. It was a political compromise — tethered to a new age of lower expectations — where maintaining the status quo supersedes all other aspirations. And yet nine years later, the limited provisions of the ACA are still under political attack.
Can the idea of a new Medicare type plan that covers all Americans be reborn and survive in the fractured and timid politics of the 21st century?
Are today’s Americans even capable of accomplishing any big ideas the way our grandparents accomplished theirs? Beaten up by an economic Great Depression, the Greatest Generation never asked whether they could afford to fight Hitler. They never asked whether they could afford to build an interstate highway system, or make it to the moon.
Can today’s America repeat the best of their legacy, or even follow a lesser rhyme of the history they left us? I don’t know. Let’s hope so.