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Monday, July 30, 2012

Waiting for Medicare

Amy Smoucha

Staff Writer

Today is the 47th Anniversary of Medicare. On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson traveled to Independence, Missouri, for a formal ceremony where he signed both Medicare and Medicaid into law. President Truman became Medicare's first beneficiary.

My grandparents immigrated to this country from Eastern Europe during the early part of the last century. I remember hearing stories about how hard it was to get elders from the “old country” to sign up for Medicare. They were unfamiliar with insurance and wary of doctors. Still, 19 million people signed up for voluntary Medicare coverage by July 1, 1966, when the program was implemented. Medicare is credited with moving millions of seniors from poverty to a better life, relief that not only benefited them, but also their children and grandchildren.

Now, with the passage of health reform, we have the opportunity to give that same relief to the millions of middle-class Americans, young and old, who have been suffering for years without insurance or with inadequate coverage.

I had a chance to meet many of these Americans while health reform was being debated. I traveled throughout Missouri and met hundreds of people who told me they were “waiting for Medicare.” They were early retirees, family farmers, small business owners, and folks caring for disabled children or aging parents. They didn't have health insurance, usually because they had a pre-existing condition or because they couldn't afford the high-deductible, low-benefit plan insurers would sell them. One woman in Thayer, Missouri, was uninsurable due to a pre-existing condition. Her condition? She had donated a kidney to her son.

The idea of “waiting for Medicare” hit me hard. My mother was waiting for Medicare for years. As a retail clerk at Sears, she didn't have health insurance for most of her life. My mom was one of those amazing people who got up to go to work each day, took us to church on Sunday, played bingo Thursday nights, and was afraid to go to the doctor because she didn't have insurance. While she was waiting for Medicare, my mother developed high blood pressure and heart disease. We discovered this just as she turned 65, when her long wait for insurance was finally over. Her golden years involved struggling with congestive heart failure. She died at the age of 67, when I was 23. I take the idea of “waiting” for health insurance personally.

Right now, millions of people across America, in every state, rural community, city, and town, are waiting for Obamacare. I think especially of a friend's son who is a carpenter with a herniated disc. He was accepted by a local Community Health Center—a sliding scale clinic—and found a wonderful primary care doctor. But because he's uninsured, he is on a waiting list for surgery. Most recently, his foot started dragging, and the damage is affecting his urinary function. He is 40 years old and waiting for Obamacare.

Obamacare will give every family the security of affordable health insurance. The new law will mean people like my mother or my friend's son will be guaranteed the right to buy a health insurance policy that covers their pre-existing conditions. Insurance companies won't be able to charge more or exclude coverage for our medical conditions.

In 1948 President Truman said, “This great Nation cannot afford to allow its citizens to suffer needlessly from the lack of proper medical care. Our ultimate aim must be a comprehensive insurance system to protect all our people equally against insecurity and ill health." Just as Medicare's passage in 1965 swept America into a new age of economic security for seniors, Obamacare will extend economic and health security for middle-class Americans. We must move forward to fully implement the law.