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Behind the Numbers
Posted at 12:01 PM ET, 07/16/2009

Health Care Reform Circa 1965: Polling on Medicare

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).

By Jennifer Agiesta  |  12:01 PM ET, 07/16/2009

Categories:  Health care, Health care

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