07.30.15

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy, On the 50th Anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid,

Today we celebrate a true milestone in our Nation’s history, and we mark this reminder that basic health insurance is not a privilege for the wealthy, but a right, for every American.  On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Social Security Amendments of 1965 into law establishing the Medicare and Medicaid programs.  For 50 years, these two programs have offered health care and economic security to millions of Americans and their families. 

The debate over the right to basic health insurance began in the 1940s with President Harry Truman.  At a time when just one in eight seniors had health care and were earning less than $1000 on average annually, President Truman sought to create a safety net to meet the needs of a growing population.  It may be difficult for all of us in the generations of Americans born since that era to fully understand today, but before Medicaid and Medicare, when private health insurers could still discriminate against individuals based on their health, many seniors were either denied coverage entirely or priced out of health insurance.  And for Americans living in poverty, health care was simply out of reach.

The Social Security Amendments of 1965 offered a path forward.  Today, Medicare and Medicaid cover a combined 110 million Americans, including seniors, persons with disabilities, and low-income Americans and their families.  From cancer screenings to hospital coverage, yearly well-visits, flu vaccinations, pediatric dental care and caregiver support, Medicare and Medicaid provide access to the basic health care services that all Americans deserve.  And what a dramatic and tangible difference that has made and continues to make in the lives of millions of people.

Through the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid took a step further.  States that expanded Medicaid under the law saved nearly $2 billion in health care costs while extending coverage many, many more Americans.  Closing the coverage gap known as the “donut hole” saved seniors on Medicare $15 billion in health care costs – a savings to seniors of $28 million in my home state of Vermont alone.  The Affordable Care Act strengthened Medicare for future generations, extending the Trust Fund an additional 13 years as a result of savings to the program.

It is worth remembering as well that in the early years of Medicare and Medicaid, as these programs were established and went through some growing pains, public opinion at first was tentative in supporting these major reforms.  Over time, public support for and appreciation of the benefits of these programs has grown significantly.  We can see some parallels in the way public opinion about the Affordable Care Act has continued to grow, as its benefits have become more widespread and more apparent in our daily lives.  

As we celebrate this important anniversary, I hope we all will remember how far these programs have come and commit to keeping them strong for future generations.  Strengthening Medicare and Medicaid is an economic investment in the wellbeing of our country, and I will fight for these programs for my children and my grandchildren. 

I am proud to celebrate an anniversary marking the federal government’s promise of providing reassurance and stability for our Nation’s most vulnerable citizens.  I look forward to celebrating the success of Medicare and Medicaid for generations to come. 

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