50th Anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid
Download: Medicare and Medicaid Fact Sheet
At the top of President Lyndon Johnson’s legislative agenda in 1965 was Medicare, a federally funded insurance program to provide low-cost medical and hospital care for America’s elderly under Social Security. Half of the country’s population over age sixty-five had no medical insurance, and a third of the aged lived in poverty, unable to afford proper medical care; Johnson believed it was high time to do something about this.
Shortly after his November election win, he told Health, Education, and Welfare’s assistant secretary, Wilbur Cohen, to make Medicare the administration’s "number one priority." On January 4, Johnson put the issue front and center in his State of the Union message (full text); three days later he pressed for passage of Medicare, issuing a statement to Congress demanding that America’s senior citizens "be spared the darkness of sickness without hope."
Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to seriously consider a federal health insurance program. As Congress churned out New Deal legislation, Roosevelt advocated inclusion of a federal health insurance component in his Social Security Act of 1935, before dropping it to avoid jeopardizing the bill’s passage. Fourteen years later, Harry Truman sent the House a bill that would offer health insurance to those age sixty-five and older, but it was blocked by an intractable Ways and Means Committee. Kennedy tried, too, sending a comparable bill to Capitol Hill in 1962, where it missed passage in the Senate by a few votes.
In each case, the American Medical Association (AMA) was the chief culprit in killing the legislation, spending millions to brand the concept as "socialized medicine," an ambiguous characterization that nonetheless made it intrinsically un-American. Conservatives also cast a wary eye. Actor Ronald Reagan, a darling of the growing conservative movement and soon-to-be California gubernatorial candidate, warned that such a program would "invade every area of freedom in this country" and would, in years to come, have Americans waxing wistful to future generations about "what it was like in America when men were free."
But sixteen years after Truman’s efforts were derailed by an unwilling Congress, Johnson believed "the times had caught up with the idea." On July 30, 1965, Johnson traveled to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, where the eighty-one-year-old Truman, lean and bent with age, his wife, Bess, in tow, watched Johnson sign Medicare into law.
Proclaiming the thirty-third president the "real daddy" of Medicare, Johnson awarded President and Mrs. Truman the first two Medicare cards, numbers one and two. "He had started it all, so many years before," Johnson wrote of Truman later. "I wanted him to know that America remembered."
Excerpt from Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency by Mark K. Updegrove
Full text: President Johnson's Remarks at the Medicare Bill Signing (July 30, 1965, The American Presidency Project)
1964 Medicare Ad
Newsreel: Medicare Bill Signing - Download video
President Lyndon Johnson and President Harry S. Truman shake hands at the Medicare Bill Signing at Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. LBJ Library photo by unknown, 34897-14. Taken July 30, 1965.
President Lyndon Johnson, President Harry S. Truman, and others walk through the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum during the Medicare Bill signing event. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto, A986-26a. Taken July 30, 1965.
President Harry S. Truman and President Lyndon Johnson speaking. Medicare Bill signing event at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto, A982-22a. Taken July 30, 1965.
To see more photos from the Medicare Bill signing, we recommend searching our photo archive and using "Medicare" in the search field. All photos are public domain and may be downloaded.
Telephone conversation with President Johnson, Congressman Wilbur Mills, and Health, Education, and Welfare Assistant Secretary Wilbur Cohen on strategy to pass the Medicare Bill. March 23, 1965, 4:54 p.m. [Download - Right Click "Save Link As"]