Presidential Medicine: JFK

Dec_23__1952_

President Eisenhower succeeded Truman as President, bringing the White House back into GOP hands for the first time in twenty years. Eisenhower strongly opposed socialized healthcare, favoring instead a system of private and employer-based insurance. Following the failure of the Truman-backed plan,  the system of  health insurance we have now grew under the care of the Eisenhower administration. By the time Democrat John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960, the system was well entrenched.

While Kennedy continued to believe in universal health care and the ideal of single-payer national health insurance, he knew that the AMA had already made that fight unwinnable. Instead he focused his attention on picking up  Truman’s stalled fight for a medicare program to cover those too old to work and falling through the cracks of the private employer system. The fight would prove no less daunting.

Escalating medical costs during a period of dramatic post-war advancements in care had made it so that Social Security, a legacy of the Roosevelt Administration and the New Deal, was no longer adequate to cover senior citizens’ care. The plan that emerged among Congressional Democrats in the late 1950s focused on providing much-needed care to Americans over 65. In order to ward off attacks from the AMA such as those that had killed Truman’s efforts at healthcare reform in the 1940s, the new plan was framed as an expansion of the already-existing Social Security administration. 

Kennedy embraced the plan during the 1960 campaign and made it a legislative priority following his election, believing the popularity of the Social Security program and the backing of organized labor strengthened his hand against Congressional conservatives. In 1962, he delivered a major speech at Madison Square Garden in New York, hoping to push the legislation across the finish line through a popular televised appeal:

As they had in the 1940s, the AMA rallied their forces to fight this new bill. Much of the groundwork had been laid by their earlier campaign against universal health care, which had effectively branded all government-run healthcare as socialistic and “un-American.” In this cartoon by Greensboro Daily News cartoonist Bill Sanders which was featured in the Drawing Blood exhibition, the AMA is represented as offering Kennedy their time-tested solution of the “Ole Socialized Medicine Stigma,” guaranteed to kill any attempt at national health care. That the AMA is represented as a doctor handing out poison articulates Sanders’ sense that they are betraying their Hippocratic Oath in fighting to defeat health care for the elderly.

In the end, the bill never got its day in court. Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat and the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, kept the bill from ever coming to a vote in his committee. When Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Medicare remained in legislative limbo. It would be the task of Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to finally get Medicare passed into law.