The political battle lasted for years. After one young Democratic president's attempt to change the way some Americans get their health care failed, the fight was revived following the election of another Democrat a few years later. Some favored a government run program. Others backed a plan operated by private insurers, with government-funded subsidies to assist those with lower-incomes in paying their premiums. It all came to a head by July... 1965.
The program was Medicare, and sparring over its passage - 44 years ago this month - closely resembles the debate taking place in Washington today as the House and Senate roll out their versions of health care reform.
A July 1962 Gallup poll found mixed feelings about President John F. Kennedy's proposal, 28 percent said they held generally favorable views of his plan, 24 percent were generally unfavorable, and a sizable plurality (33 percent) said they didn't have an opinion on it or hadn't heard about the plan. A month later, after Congress had rejected Kennedy's proposal, an Opinion Research Corporation poll found 44 percent said the plan should have passed, while 37 percent felt Congress did the right thing.
The same poll probed concerns about the program, finding similar worries to those pollsters hear from respondents on health care reform now, including majorities concerned about escalating costs, increased taxes and taking a step toward socialized medicine:
Q. Here are a few problems some people see in President Kennedy's Medicare plan. On each, please tell me if you think this is a very serious, fairly serious, or not very serious problem.
Serious NET Very Fairly Because they don't have to pay the bills, many people would try to get more medical care than they really need 69 50 19 The Medicare plan would cover many people willing and able to pay their own medical bills 62 43 19 As government medical insurance costs rise, there will be less money for Social Security retirement benefits 63 42 21 Government medical insurance for the aged would be a big step toward socialized medicine 54 39 15 The Medicare plan would mean an increase in the Social Security tax of everyone now working 54 29 25
Following Pres. Lyndon Johnson's election, Americans remained somewhat divided on the plan, with 46 percent telling Harris pollsters in Feb. 1965 that they'd prefer "a Federal law which would provide medical care for the aged by a special tax, like Social Security" and 36 percent more inclined to support "a plan of expanded private health insurance." Then, as now, Democrats were more apt to favor the government option (58 percent) than were Republicans (27 percent).
Asked another way, 62 percent said they favored "President Johnson's program of medical care for the aged under Social Security." A smaller majority, 56 percent, backed the American Medical Association's alternative plan, which would have "everyone who could afford it covered by private health insurance" and "those who couldn't afford it ...covered under a government health plan."
Assessing these conflicting views, pollster Louis Harris concluded, "So deep is the concern about medical care for the aged that the American people would welcome any of a variety of national plans."
Now, Medicare is widely seen as an important government service, albeit one politicians have used to increase the coffers of their hometown doctors. An April 2009 survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly eight in 10 (77 percent) consider it "very important" for the country as a whole, add in those who consider it "somewhat important" and you have near unanimity (96 percent).