On this day in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Medicare, a health insurance program for elderly Americans, into law. At the bill-signing ceremony, which took place at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, former President Harry S. Truman was enrolled as Medicare’s first beneficiary and received the first Medicare card. Johnson wanted to recognize Truman, who had advocated for universal health care since 1945.
Discussion and effort toward a national health insurance system for Americans goes all the way back to the days of President Teddy Roosevelt, whose platform included health insurance when he ran for president in 1912. Even before that, “government health care” in various forms arrived during and after the Civil War. The idea for a national health plan in the modern era, however, did not gain steam until it was pushed by President Truman.
On November 19, 1945, seven months into his presidency, Truman sent a message to Congress, calling for the creation of a national health insurance fund, open to all Americans. The plan Truman envisioned would provide health coverage to individuals, paying for such services as doctor visits, hospital visits, laboratory services, dental care and nursing.
Although Truman fought to get a bill passed during his time, he was unsuccessful. It was nearly another 20 years before some form of national health insurance, Medicare for Americans 65 and older, would finally come into being, rather than earlier proposals to cover qualifying Americans of all ages.
President John F. Kennedy made his own unsuccessful push for a national health care program for seniors after a national study showed that 56 percent of Americans over the age of 65 were not covered by health insurance. But it was not until after 1966 and the legislation signed by Johnson in the previous year, that Americans would receive Medicare health coverage. Hence, Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, were the first two Medicare beneficiaries.
As constituted today, the Medicare program covers most persons age 65 or older and consists of four related health insurance plans: a hospital insurance plan (called Part A); a supplementary medical insurance plan (Part B); and two privately run plans, Medicare Advantage (Part C) and prescription drug coverage (Part D). By early 2019, there were 60.6 million people receiving health coverage through Medicare. Medicare spending reached $705.9 billion in 2017, which was about 20 percent of total national health spending.