He inaugurated the "Great Society" program at the White House signing ceremony by enrolling former President Harry Truman as the first beneficiary and presenting him with the first Medicare card. Forty-four years later, Medicare has dramatically improved access to quality health care for the nation's seniors, allowed them to live longer and healthier lives, and has become one of the country's most popular government programs.
Since the advent of Medicare, "the health of the elderly population has improved, as measured by both longevity and functional status," said one study published in the journal Health Affairs. In fact, according to the study, "life expectancy at age 65 increased from 14.3 years in 1960 to 17.8 years in 1998 and the chronically disabled elderly population declined from 24.9 percent in 1982 to 21.3 percent in 1994." Leaders of the Commonwealth Fund wrote in May that, "compared to people with private insurance, Medicare enrollees have greater access to care [and] fewer problems with medical bills." The report added that this finding is significant when considering that those Americans on Medicare represent a demographic that is more likely to be in poor health and to have lower incomes. Prior to Medicare, "about one-half of America's seniors did not have hospital insurance," more than 25 percent "were estimated to go without medical care due to cost concerns," and one in three were living in poverty. Today, nearly all seniors have access to affordable health care and only about 14 percent of seniors are below the poverty line.
A recent Commonwealth Fund survey found that "elderly Medicare beneficiaries reported greater overall satisfaction with their health coverage." Medicare is so popular that most Americans support expanding its coverage to Americans aged 55 to 64.*** According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, "over half of Americans (53 percent) 'strongly' support such a proposal and an additional 26 percent say they support it somewhat, totaling 79 percent backing." Similarly, a Health and Human Services Department-commissioned study released in June found that "56 percent of enrollees in traditional fee-for-service Medicare give Medicare a rating of 9 or 10 on a 0-10 scale," while "only 40 percent of Americans enrolled in private health insurance gave their plans a 9 or 10 rating." "The higher scores for Medicare are based on perceptions of better access to care," the National Journal noted, commenting on the surveys, adding that "more than two thirds of traditional Medicare enrollees say they 'always' get access to needed care (appointments with specialists or other necessary tests and treatment), compared with 63 percent in Medicare managed care plans and only 51 percent of those with private insurance."
Conservatives "bitterly opposed" efforts to provide elderly Americans with access to health care. Ronald Reagan argued in 1961 that if Medicare wasn't stopped, "one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it once was like in America when men were free." George H. W. Bush called the plan "socialized medicine," and Barry Goldwater asked, "having given our pensioners their medical care in kind. . . why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?"
***The Review has long advocated lowering the Medicare age to 55.