Celebrating Medicare: Strengthening the Program for the Next 50 Years


On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare program into law. Today, we celebrate 50 years of Medicare providing affordable, guaranteed health care to millions of Americans — but we also look toward its future. We must recommit ourselves to keeping this vital lifeline strong for current and future generations.

It’s easy to forget what life was like for older Americans before Medicare was enacted. Back in 1965, only about 1 in 4 Americans over age 65 had adequate health insurance. A major illness or hospital stay could be catastrophic — not only to your health, but to your financial independence. As President Johnson said at the bill signing:

“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine. No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.”

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Today, almost 55 million Americans are covered by Medicare — roughly 45 million people 65 and older and about 9 million people with disabilities. Medicare is largely responsible for the poverty rate among older Americans dropping to less than 1 in every 10.

Medicare pays for many vital health care services including hospitalizations, physician visits and prescription drugs. Most recently, essential preventive services have been added to Medicare through the Affordable Care Act.

However, it’s important to remember that Medicare is not a free ride or “Cadillac plan,” but more like a reliable Chevy. People on Medicare still pay premiums, deductibles and copays. In fact, they pay an average of about $4,500 per year out of pocket. And since about half of all Medicare beneficiaries live on incomes of less than $23,500 per year, that’s about 1 out of every 6 dollars of income going to health care.

Moreover, there’s a lot that Medicare simply doesn’t cover, such as dental, vision and hearing care. The need for eyeglasses and hearing aids is particularly common among older people. And lastly, Medicare does not cover the large costs of long-term nursing home care.

As Medicare turns 50, it faces a number of challenges, including the rising cost of health care and a growing aging population. Some say the answer is to cut benefits or force seniors to pay more. AARP believes there are better, more responsible solutions to these challenges. After all, Americans have worked hard their entire lives to earn their Medicare benefits. As AARP’s CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said this month:

For Medicare, we need sensible solutions that improve care, reduce health care costs and create real savings for taxpayers without reducing their benefits or their access to care. These include reducing prescription drug costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices and by improving access to lower-cost biologic drugs; improving care coordination; cracking down on waste and fraud; and eliminating inefficient payment systems, uncoordinated care, mistakes, duplication and unnecessary paperwork.

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The latest trustees’ report found that the Medicare hospital trust fund will be solvent until 2030, at which point it will still be able to cover 86 percent of program costs. However, AARP urges elected officials to address the financial challenges facing Medicare by tackling head-on the high cost of health care and prescription drugs and the inefficiencies in our health care system.

Medicare is more than just a health care system. It is a reflection of our values, ensuring that our nation’s seniors can age with independence and dignity. As it celebrates its golden anniversary, AARP vows to keep fighting to ensure Medicare remains strong for our children and grandchildren.

Follow me on Twitter @DavidCertner for the latest updates on what’s happening in Washington on the issues that matter most to older Americans.

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