Today in 1965: LBJ signs Medicare into law

July 30, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryIt was 45 years ago today that President Lyndon Johnson enacted national health insurance for millions of elderly Americans with the stroke of a pen – a pen handed to him by Harry Truman.

Immediately afterward, Johnson signed the paperwork that would make Truman and his wife, Bess, the very first Medicare enrollees.

“They told me, President Truman, that if you wish to get the voluntary medical insurance you will have to sign this application form, and they asked me to sign as your witness,” Johnson told the former president. “You’re getting special treatment, since cards won’t go out to the other folks until the end of this month – but we wanted you to know, and we wanted the whole world to know, who is the real daddy of Medicare.”

While Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to publicly endorse national health insurance, Truman did more than any other to advance the concept that would become Medicare. During World War II, Truman was troubled by the number of draftees who failed their induction physicals due to untreated medical conditions. Truman saw this as evidence that too many ordinary Americans couldn’t afford adequate care. “That is all wrong in my book,” he said. “I am trying to fix it so the people in the middle-income bracket can live as long as the very rich and the very poor.”

With the war’s end in 1945, Truman proposed the first national health care plan to Congress. Originally conceived to cover most Americans, the proposal was gradually scaled back until, by the end of his presidency in 1953, it was roughly equivalent to Medicare.

President John F. Kennedy resurrected the Medicare concept in a 1962 speech, but it continued to face formidable opposition from most Republicans and from the American Medical Association, which regarded any government involvement in health care as “socialized medicine.” At the height of its campaign against Medicare in 1963, the AMA hired actor-turned-pitchman Ronald Reagan as its spokesperson, just a year before Reagan launched his political career with an energetic pitch for Barry Goldwater at the Republican National Convention.

In 1964, Johnson defeated Goldwater in a landslide – and with large Democratic majorities riding Johnson’s coattails into both houses of Congress, the stage was set for Medicare’s passage.

President Harry Truman's Medicare enrollment card