Commentary by Tim Cuddigan
This will come as a surprise to most Americans, but the general idea of Medicare dates all the way back to the very infancy of our republic. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson favored legislation that would require all citizens to pay into a private health insurance program. That legislation failed to gain traction and little more was said or done about a government-sponsored health insurance program until the early 1900s which eventually led to President Harry Truman championing the idea in the 1940s. However, it wasn’t until July 30, 1965 that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed two amendments to the Social Security Act creating Medicare and Medicaid. The two programs were cornerstones in Johnson’s vision for social reform in America which he called the “Great Society.” (Not coincidentally, at the law’s signing ceremony Harry Truman was presented with the very first Medicare card and his wife, Bess, the second one.)
Because the names are so similar and because they are both government health programs, Medicare and Medicaid are often confused with each other. However, there are significant differences. Medicare is a health insurance program for people over 65 years-old and disabled workers who have qualified for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits. Workers and their employers pay into a Medicare pool of funds through payroll taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) during their working years. Medicare does not pay all healthcare expenses; recipients must still pay substantial out-of-pocket costs. Medicaid, by comparison, is a social-assistance program which provides health coverage for individuals and families with little or no income. Medicaid is jointly paid for by federal and state governments from general tax receipts. An estimated 45 million Americans are covered by Medicare and another approximately 58 million qualify for Medicaid benefits.
Today, Medicare and Medicaid are under siege by some Washington politicians who want to drastically cut or even totally eliminate the two programs. This comes at a time when seniors and the disabled are already struggling financially due to healthcare costs. In too many cases illnesses or injuries are forcing families into bankruptcy. As the New York Times puts it: “For a rapidly growing share of older Americans, traditional ideas about life in retirement are being upended by a dismal reality: bankruptcy.” Which brings us to the upcoming mid-term elections and why—if you believe as I do that we must save Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act—you should carefully evaluate each candidate for federal office and determine where they stand on these critical issues. And then—most important of all—vote!