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Every industrial nation in the world guarantees their citizens access to essential health care services except the United States. One in eight Americans — a shocking 46 million people—a majority of them in working families, do not have any health insurance. In the past there have been numerous attempts to enact health care reform by presidents of both parties — Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter and Clinton. Each was met with fierce attacks by powerful stakeholders who mobilized their considerable resources to keep the financing of health care a private affair. In the first half of the twentieth century, physicians led the anti-reform coalition, fearful that government entry would mean government control of medical practice. Doctors lobbied legislators, gave campaign contributions to sympathetic candidates and organized “grassroots” protests with other like-minded groups to defeat reform. They had the support of influential allies including business organizations and insurance companies.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century it was the insurance industry that took the lead in crushing health care reform. Yet in 1965 Congress did enact Medicare, a social insurance program that guaranteed coverage for hospital care and physicians’ services to all people 65 and over.
How was Medicare possible? The answer is that the program was passed in the wake of a sweeping Democratic victory in Congress and the election of a president, Lyndon Johnson, committed to health insurance for the elderly. It also was the culmination of a decade-long campaign by the AFL-CIO and the National Council of Senior Citizens.
The results of the 2008 election have created an historic moment not equaled since 1964. The Democratic Party is in control of both the House and the Senate, President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to provide health care for everyone, and the public appears to be more willing than at any time in recent history to accept increased government responsibility for the economy and family security. This just may be an opportune moment for a new health care reform initiative that can finally achieve the right that is guaranteed in the constitution of many nations, the right to health care.
Sociology Department, Florida State University
Quadagno is the author of One Nation Uninsured: Why the U.S. has no National Health Insurance.
This program aired on January 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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