Medicare milestone marks big day in Truman Library history

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman Library, with former President Harry S. Truman, Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Truman, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and Senator Stuart Symington. |Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library & Museum
President Lyndon B. Johnson (seated left) signed Medicare into law at the Harry S. Truman Library as Truman (seated right) looked on. |Courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

Last week’s 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson signing Medicare into law was a uniquely significant milestone for one Missouri institution.

Medicare, the national health insurance plan that today serves nearly 55.2 million Americans, became law on July 30, 1965 at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in the late president’s hometown of Independence.

Johnson chose the venue as a tribute to Truman’s groundbreaking work to establish a federal health care program.

Twenty years earlier, in November 1945, Truman had proposed to Congress that the U.S. government should play a role in health care. The proposal came on the heels of World War II, during which one-third of the nation’s military draftees had failed their induction physicals.

That was why Truman found it essential to provide secure access to the services of physicians and hospitals, according to Randy Sowell, an archivist at the Truman Library.

Truman’s proposal called for not only seniors, but working-aged Americans and their families, to receive physician and hospital insurance. Under the plan, a federal health board would have determined fees for services, and doctors could choose whether or not to participate in the program.

But Truman’s idea was ill-fated. The American Medical Association, which opposed the idea, labeled it “socialized medicine,” playing on the public’s concerns at the time about communism in Russia, according to Truman Library accounts.

Two decades later, Johnson won approval for similar legislation, thanks to the backing of a large Democratic majority in Congress.

Truman and his wife, Bess, were there to celebrate the occasion and receive the first two Medicare cards.

“At 81 years of age, Truman was in frail condition, still not recovered from the injuries he had suffered in a fall at his home some months earlier,” Sowell said.

When introducing Johnson to the audience, Truman said that the elderly “are our prideful responsibility” and should be entitled “to the best medical protection available.”

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