Fifty years ago today — July 30, 1965 — the United States took a major step down the road to socialized medicine when President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law, making millions of senior citizens dependent on the federal government for their healthcare.
Medicare was sold to the public as a way to protect seniors against high medical costs, particularly those arising from catastrophic, long-term illnesses. The nation’s elderly were presented as relative paupers just one illness away from complete indigence.
“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine,” Johnson said at the bill signing. “No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years.”
None of this was true; nor were the various rosy pictures painted of the program’s benefits or expected future costs. “Medicare did not and could not achieve passage without the misrepresentation, cost concealment, tying [of unpopular provisions to popular ones], and incrementalism to which its supporters ultimately resorted,” Charlotte Twight observed in a 1997 Cato Journal article.
Seniors, then as now, generally had lower incomes than younger Americans but more assets. Very few were genuinely unable to cope with medical bills, and there were already private and public programs in place to help them. Many doctors also provided free care to those in need. And as to those “catastrophes” from which Medicare was supposed to shield seniors, note that the law signed by Johnson in 1965 did not cover catastrophic illness.