Online Program

Medicare: Truths and myths about origins, civil rights and the program's expansionary aspirations

Wednesday, November 4, 2015 : 8:50 a.m. - 9:10 a.m.

Theodore Marmor, PhD, School of Management, Yale University, New York, NY

This essay’s historical question is how and why the enforcement of civil rights came to be an important feature of the implementation of the Medicare statute starting in the summer of 1965.  The original formulation of the Medicare reform strategy--itself the subject of a number of scholarly books--placed no emphasis on desegregating Southern hospitals.  The strategy expressed at the start of 1965 emphasized the goal of 60 days of hospital insurance coverage for Americans over 65 and eligible for social security retirement benefits. By the time of implementation July 1 1966, the program administrators were preoccupied with avoiding criticism from senior citizens having difficulty gaining admission.  

How HEW leaders came to accept the use of Medicare's financial importance to press for desegregation –especially in Southern hospitals--is not widely understood in the historical and policy analytic literature.  The portrait of that process in this essay depends in large part on the author's role as assistant to Under Secretary Wilbur Cohen during the summer of 1966.  This participant observation is backed up by access to the files of Cohen and depends as well on the wider scholarship reflected in the book, The Politics of Medicare (1973, 2000).

The concluding theme is the surprise that civil rights enforcement was such a sensitive---and largely successful--initiative.  Medicare's social insurance reformers did not think of the program in that way; the Office of Civil Rights, itself a product of recent reform, was a spirited and demanding reform actor.  

By the time the program started, HEW and the White House were preoccupied with avoiding last minute disasters.  In short, the desegregation of American hospitals was precipitated by Medicare, but not because Medicare's leaders and key administrators had imagined that role for the program.  The role of myth --versus historical fact—is crucial.

Learning Areas:

Provision of health care to the public
Systems thinking models (conceptual and theoretical models), applications related to public health

Learning Objectives:
Describe the limited role of civil rights in the formulation of the medicare strategy in the 1950s and the important role civil rights activists within HEW played in the implementation of Medicare between enactment of the statute in July 1965 and the operational start of the program a year later.

Keyword(s): Policy/Policy Development, Medicare

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: I have forty years of experience as a college professor OF POLITICAL SCIENCE AND PUBLIC POLICY @ Yale University, decades of research on the origins, development and evaluation of the Medicare program, and have no commercial conflicts with my scholarship. As a former editor of Health Politics, Policy and Law, I am quite aware to such concerns.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.