On July 30, 1965 – nearly 20 years after Harry Truman first proposed national healthcare insurance – President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law. The program, one of the most consequential legacies of the Great Society, provides affordable healthcare insurance for people aged 65 and above.
Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to propose government-mandated healthcare insurance as part of his Social Security program, an effort that proved unsuccessful. After World War II, Truman asked lawmakers to enact a national health insurance plan – again to no avail.
“By the time Truman prepared to leave office in early 1953, he had backed off from his original plan of universal coverage. The focus increasingly turned toward Social Security. Nearly two decades of futile debate ensued, with conservative opponents, joined by the American Medical Association, repeatedly warning of the dangers of ‘socialized medicine.’”
The legislative gridlock broke when Johnson won the presidency in the 1964 landslide election and brought sizeable Democratic majorities to the Senate and House. The breakthrough came when House Ways and Means Committee chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas had an epiphany and decided to support Medicare. According to Mills, “I can support a payroll tax for financing health benefits just as I have supported a payroll tax for cash benefits.”
The Medicare bill easily cleared the House by 313 – 115 and the Senate by 68 – 21. When Johnson signed the legislation into law at a White House ceremony, Harry Truman – aged 81 – attended and was enrolled as the nation’s first Medicare beneficiary.