President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Medicare into law on July 30, 1965. At his left is former President Harry S. Truman, the first president to propose national health insurance and the first person to be enrolled in Medicare. AP Photo

Thanks, Lyndon, I’m 64 and knocking on Medicare’s door

Mar 01, 2017

By Jim Jenkins
March 1, 2017

This story was originally published in The News & Observer.

The envelopes started arriving about a month ago. To tell you the truth, I haven't read the contents thoroughly yet, but I'm getting to it. I know what's inside. Having gotten about six months from eligibility for Medicare, it's time to "begin the process," as they say, of signing up. A friend, two weeks older, is lining us up a lawyer, and we hope, as a couple of fellows of a certain age, he'll guide us through the process.

I recalled, on seeing the first envelope, a time some years ago when a cousin and I ran into our 10th grade English teacher, a woman with a grand and pointed sense of humor. She looked us up and down and finally said, "I can't boys got so old."

Indeed, I've been enjoying the Thursday discounts at the grocery store, and at the movie theater. At both places, such graces are awarded to "senior citizens," a group I happily join and embrace. (At the gym, if I close my eyes between sets on the weight machines, the young folks tap me on the shoulder and ask, "Sir, are you OK?")

Signing on to Medicare just sort of makes it official. Like getting the fire-starting patch with the Scouts. Thankfully, there's no fire-starting requirement for Medicare.

Indeed, you have to be 65. The law was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, and the first person to enroll was President Harry Truman.

In the ensuing 50 years, Medicare has been a literal lifesaver for tens of millions of Americans, who might have died from a lack of medical care or fallen into dire poverty without it.

With Social Security as another safety net (first payments made in 1940), the plain truth is that people are alive today, with a measure (however small) of security and safety they wouldn't have otherwise.

Without these benefits, America would be very different, with permanent poor houses and soup lines and tent cities for millions and millions of people. (Such things are the reality, sadly for too many of our fellow travelers.)

I don't care for the views of steely-eyed "reformers" like House Speaker Paul Ryan, the young man from Wisconsin who appears to flirt with reforming Medicare and Social Security, "entitlement programs" they're called, in the name of balanced budgets. We hear of phrases like "privatization," or "raising ages," or "reducing benefits" so as to "preserve" these programs.

When these discussions happen, panic ensues and understandably so among some of my fellow seniors or near-seniors.

But take heart, all you boomers.

The recent town hall meetings, at least those of members of Congress who had the guts to show up, looked more like sieges, with constituents shouting their support for "Obamacare," which President Trump — who now reckons health care more complicated than anybody thought — and Republicans ran against as if it were some kind of Russian plot (sarcasm intended). All that reform sounds good in the cloak rooms of Washington, where the politicians are talking only to each other.

But back home, things proved to be different. And if the delicately bruised egos of our Washington representatives were shaken by the reaction to the possible end of Obamacare, just flirting with reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits — just flirting — will make the last town halls look like a third-grade square dance. Tar. Feathers. Rails. Duck tape. And come the following November, they'll just need that one-way plane ticket home. (Winter is unpleasant in Wisconsin, by the way.)

Because, though groups of regular Americans can be manipulated by demagoguery or anger or dissatisfaction, to sometimes vote against their own interests, sooner or later their better angels take flight, from the Women's March to the town halls. Democracy rises up.

And, when that happens, a fever sweeps the cloak rooms, because the one thing, and sadly for many the only thing, some of those pols care about is getting re-elected. And suddenly cutting Medicare and Social Security looks like a very bad idea.

Take my advice, dear senators and representatives. Forget it, adjourn, and catch a movie. I might be able to get you a discount.