Nation's capitol as part of history of health reform in the United States.

Health Reform: What a Long Strange Trip it’s Been – Part 1


“What is old is new again”


Today’s health reform debate is deeply rooted in the ideologies and legislative efforts of the past 75 years.

Should Social and Environmental Determinants of Health be part of reform efforts? In 1945, President Harry Truman proposed solutions to these issues as part of comprehensive health reform. Can we legislate “healthcare for all” while maintaining a private system that allows consumers to choose their own physicians? In 1962, President John F. Kennedy championed such an approach.

Sound like familiar issues relevant to today?

Understanding past struggles helps to shape our current efforts for positive change by providing useful perspectives on the similarities of issues as well as the politics of reform that have persisted for decades.

And so, here’s a short history on the “roots” of today’s issues and efforts to improve health systems in America.

This installment (Part 1) begins in the 1940’s and culminates in 1969 with the landmark passage of both Medicare and Medicaid.

In Part 2, we’ll look at reform efforts from the 1970’s leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act and what’s happening today.


1933-1945: Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration

While health reform as a movement in the United States goes back to the early 1900’s, a national effort supported by a significant political party emerged in the 1940’s. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed in the concept of “healthcare for all” as part of his broader view on the role of government to create and manage “social programs” to benefit all Americans.

His key push to provide Healthcare for All was part of what would become known as “America’s Second Bill of Rights.”

President Roosevelt taking his case for Universal Health Coverage to the people as part of his initiative known as America’s Second Bill of Rights.

As World War II was coming to a close, it had been rumored that Universal Health Care was to be President Roosevelt’s next big political crusade. Unfortunately, he died just before the end of the war and so the world would never really know what might of come from President Roosevelt’s resolve to make healthcare accessible to all.


1945-1953: The Truman Administration

In November of 1945 President Harry Truman called on Congress with a special message recommending passage of a Comprehensive Health Program.

President Harry S. Truman

You can access the full speech here which enumerates the vision, issues and opportunities to deliver universal coverage to all Americans.

While the full speech is worth reading, there are two areas that are especially relevant to the challenges of today.

The first area of importance is where the Truman administration puts forward the tenent of healthcare as a “right”:

“In my message to the Congress of September 6, 1945, there were enumerated in a proposed Economic Bill of Rights certain rights which ought to be assured to every American citizen. One of them was: “The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” Another was the “right to adequate protection from the economic fears of sickness.”

Millions of our citizens do not now have a full measure of opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health. Millions do not now have protection or security against the economic effects of sickness. The time has arrived for action to help them attain that opportunity and that protection.”

Harry S. Truman in a speech to Congress advocating healthcare as a right.

The second area that is especially noteworthy to today’s challenges and struggle for comprehensive reform is this: Long before contemporary experts began championing the notion of Social and Environmental Determinants of Health, Harry Truman nailed the correlation of these factors to the health of a nation. His proposal tied social and environmental issues to the macro view of what “systems of health” should include:

” If we agree that the national health must be improved, our cities, towns and farming communities must be made healthful places in which to live through provision of safe water systems, sewage disposal plants and sanitary facilities. Our streams and rivers must be safeguarded against pollution. In addition to building a sanitary environment for ourselves and for our children, we must provide those services which prevent disease and promote health.”

Harry S. Truman advocating that Social and Environmental Determinants of health be part of a national health plan.

The issue that ultimately became the lightning rod for Turman’s proposal was a provision that called for universal health insurance coverage to be administered and paid for by a National Health Insurance Board. The American Medical Association, quickly decried this to be “socialized medicine,” with a Congressional subcommittee labeling the approach “communistic.” The bill died, but Truman continued pushing for expanded access to health services right up to the outbreak of the Korean War which then took priority.


1953-1961: The Eisenhower Administration

President Dwight Eisenhower was known from his military career as a brillant strategist who then became an effective and savy politician.

In reviewing the impact of Truman’s push for health reform, Eisenhower came forward with a more modest approach and a very clear message for Congress, voters and special interest groups to hear:

“I am flatly opposed to the socialization of medicine. The great need for hospital and medical services can best be met by the initiative of private plans. But it is unfortunately a fact that medical costs are rising and already impose severe hardships on many families. The Federal Government can do many helpful things and still carefully avoid the socialization of medicine.”

President Dwight Eisenhower
National television broadcast to promote Eisenhower proposal for national health reform.

President Eisenhower proposed a four-part plan to increase access to affordable care for more Americans that included:

  • Federal funding to increase number of hospitals in the United States.
  • Legislation and funding increase services to those with “disabilities.”
  • Greater flexibility in allowing states to utilize federal funds for public health services.
  • Private health insurance reform to encourage new types of plans to cover more Americans.

To pitch this plan to the American public, and make very clear the differences compared to the proposals made by the Truman Administration, President Eisenhower made use of the new political tool of television (social media of the 1950’s) to make his case for health reform.

Sidenote: While the clip above is worth watching for the sake of understanding what was being proposed, it is most noteworthy in that the majority of the broadcast features one of America’s first female cabinet members Oveta Culp Hobby.

Like so many woman leaders whose contributions are lost in history, Hobby was first female secretary, of the new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In this role, she made the (then controversial) decision to approve Jonas Salk‘s polio vaccine. She was also the first women to receive the Army’s Distinguished Service Medal for her leadership efforts during WWII, including serving as the head of the Women’s Army Corps which was created to fill the gaps left by a shortage of men. The brilliance and contributions of Oveta Culp Hobby comes through in this short clip.


1961-1963: The Kennedy Administration

Under President John F. Kennedy, a proposal for expanding access to health services included health insurance coverage for those 65 years and older as part of a Social Security benefits package.

While this work began laying a foundation for what would ultimately become Medicare, it was met with strong opposition by special interest groups. Frustrated by the efforts of special interests to kill a bill making its way through Congress, President Kennedy went on the road to make the case for his proposal directly to the public in a series of public rallies. This effort culminated in the spring of 1962 with a rally in New York City.

Madison Square Garden: President Kennedy making the case for expanding access to health care.

Eighteen thousand citizens packed Madison Square Garden with Kennedy’s speech being televised nationally. Despite public opinion being in favor of Kennedy’s proposal the bill was defeated in Committee. President Kennedy vowed to press forward but did not live to see his plan come to fruition.


1963-1969: The Johnson Administration

Following the death of President Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) was sworn in as the President of the United States. He then won a landslide victory to be elected to a full term as President in November, 1964.

President Johnson was purposeful in visibly picking up the social programs that President Kennedy had proposed in order to “keep a promise made to the American Public.” With a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, President Johnson had a receptive body for extensive social reforms that came to be known as the Great Society.

Even with control of Congress, there was strong opposition from the American Medical Association, conservative Republicans and congressional leaders within his own party.

With President Johnson working behind the scenes to build a coalition to support both Medicare and Medicaid programs, the Social Security Amendment was introduced in the House Ways and Means Committee in March of 1965, gained final approval by the Senate on July 28, 1965 and was signed into law by President Johnson on July 30, 1965.  It is noteworthy that such landmark legislation was passed within the first six months of President Johnson taking office.

“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime.

President Johnson on the signing of Medicare into law

As originally enacted, healthcare coverage would now be provided to those 65 years of age and older, and to the poor, blind and disabled. It covered healthcare services provided by hospitals, physicians, nursing facilities and home care providers. 

A behind-the-scenes look at what it took to make Medicare a reality.

Medicare was milestone legislation that guaranteed healthcare as a right for seniors. It showed that major reform is possible with the support of the public, and the alignment of the powers in Washington.

It should also be noted that such progress was made because elected leaders made healthcare access a legislative and executive priority. Even then, reform was a hard-fought battle.

The clip above from CBS’ Washington Unplugged is an exceptionally candid behind-the-scenes look at what President Johnson went through to make Medicare a reality. It demonstrates the kind of resolve and types of action needed today to enact meaningful reform going forward.

In Part 2, we will look at health reform events in the 1970’s leading up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

All videos used in this story provided via links to original content on YouTube. Full attribution and copyrights property of the original content owner who post to YouTube.

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