Guest column | Jerry Blizin

The other health care bill that was bitterly opposed: Medicare

Back in the 1960s, Medicare was the leading congressional punching bag. It was a legislative birth marked by protracted delays and disappointments that significantly involved Floridians.

In the 1960s, people claimed that Medicare legislation had more holes in it than grandma's colander. The cry of "socialism," which had dogged an earlier Truman health bill, was raised against Medicare. Republicans and conservative Democrats combined to fervently obstruct passage.

Providing medical care to only needy senior citizens was deemed by its sponsors to be a narrower and more politically feasible alternative than Truman's plan. Because Social Security and taxation were affected, this legislation had to originate in the House of Representatives, where the constitutional responsibility for such matters resides.

However, for two years Medicare couldn't even get out of committee, so the legislation couldn't get to the floor for an up-or-down vote. Several successive Medicare bills died in committee, despite the best efforts of the John F. Kennedy administration.

Medicare's prospects seemed bleaker than a Dickens' novel. The great turnaround didn't take place until 1964-65, when a Democratic Congress and an arm-twisting president, Lyndon B. Johnson, took the stage.

I got a closeup view of the congressional stone wall that Medicare faced in 1962 and 1963, first as a Congressional Fellow and later as the St. Petersburg Times correspondent in Washington.

In '62, I was an American Political Science Congressional Fellow, working in the office of the late Rep. Richard Bolling, D-Mo., a pro-Medicare Democratic liberal who served on the House Rules Committee, which decides the method and time of debate for all legislation that goes to the floor for a vote.

Controlled by a coalition of Southern conservatives and Republicans, the Rules Committee remained an adamant barrier against granting a rule on Medicare until Bolling and the House leadership contrived to add two more liberal Democrats to the committee, potentially breaking the deadlock.

Medicare was also locked up in the committee of original jurisdiction, the House Ways and Means Committee. Working as a Times reporter in 1963, I interviewed the late Rep. A.S. "Sid" Herlong, a Democrat from Leesburg. Herlong, a key member of Ways and Means, was intransigent about voting out Medicare. Herlong told me in May 1963 that he wasn't going to vote to report the bill out of committee and therefore the bill would be going nowhere. He attacked Medicare as excessive. "Cut the garment to fit the needs," Herlong said.

Herlong's view was shared by Chairman Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., and all 10 Republicans on the committee. All but two members of the Florida congressional delegation opposed the bill in 1963. Only Democratic Reps. Sam Gibbons and Dante Fascell were proponents.

Democratic leadership had hoped that Mills and Herlong could be persuaded, as a matter of party loyalty, to report out the bill, even though they personally opposed it. No dice. The Senate also tried to get around the regular order by attaching Medicare (then called King-Anderson) to a welfare measure, but lost that gambit by two votes.

It wasn't until after Johnson's landslide presidential victory in 1964 that House Democrats were able to change the composition of Ways and Means so the bill could be reported to the floor. The Rules Committee no longer stood in the way, either.

For the record, Mills and Herlong backed an alternative proposal — something called the Kerr-Mills bill, which in 1960 set up matching 60-40 grants to states for the care of the "medically needy." The problem with that program was that the states couldn't come up with their part of the money in order to receive the federal grants. Only 25 states and territories actually developed Kerr-Mills projects. Florida wasn't among them.

Florida was one of four states that first needed to pass enabling legislation in order to participate. The Florida Legislature never got around to passing it. So despite its large proportion of elderly residents, Florida never got a dime from Kerr-Mills.

The Senate Aging Committee, then led by liberal Democrat Pat McNamara of Michigan, concluded in 1963 that Kerr-Mills had benefited only one person in 100 over the age of 65. The committee said Kerr-Mills was "too little, too late and too few."

By election year 1964, the Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was saying things like "if Medicare is added to Social Security, it means that an individual could take the money that he and his employer spend on Social Security and buy twice as good a policy to cover everything that Social Security proposes to cover."

Goldwater lost big, and the dynamics in Washington abruptly changed. A critical factor was the fallout from the 1963 assassination of JFK. After that tragic event, Democrats wanted to fulfill JFK's legacy and adopt the Medicare bill Kennedy couldn't get passed.

Johnson pushed so hard for Medicare that Southerners like Russell Long, D-La., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and its third-ranking member, Florida Sen. George A. Smathers, soon became advocates.

Johnson signed Medicare into law on June 30, 1965. He flew to the Truman Library in Independence, Mo., to sign the bill in the former president's presence.

A year later, he enrolled Truman as the first Medicare member and presented him with the first Medicare card. Truman's wife, Bess, got the second one.

Medicare had to survive a grueling process, but it's now been around for 45 years. Try to get some eligible recipient nowadays to refuse it.

Jerry Blizin was a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, serving as Washington correspondent from 1963 to 1965.

The other health care bill that was bitterly opposed: Medicare 03/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 8:03pm]

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