REPORT: The 46 Year-Long Republican War On Medicare

Last week, in a dramatic vote, the House of Representatives voted to effectively end Medicare by voting for Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal. Under Ryan’s plan, the public health insurance system known as Medicare would be replaced with a system of inadequate subsidies seniors would use to purchase private insurance.

All but four House Republicans voted for Ryan’s plan. Since the vote, Republicans have been engaged in a major public relations effort where they are claiming they actually are “saving Medicare” by ending its status as public health insurance program and handing seniors over to insurance companies. Yet Main Street Americans don’t appear to be buying the GOP rhetoric, as they are angrily confronting Republican Members of Congress at their town hall events, demanding to know why they want to end Medicare.

But if Americans want to know why Republicans are so eager to kill Medicare, they should look to the party’s history with the popular program. Leading Republicans actually denounced the program as it was being designed, warning that it would take us down the road to totalitarianism or worse, and other leading Republicans were caught on record plotting to eliminate it after it was created:

Ronald Reagan: Before he was president, Reagan actually lead a campaign against the creation of Medicare. He ominously warned: “[I]f you don’t [stop Medicare] and I don’t do it, one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” [1961]

Barry Goldwater: Goldwater, a conservative icon, said that establishing Medicare would lead us down the slippery slope of subsidizing alcohol for all: “Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind, why not food baskets, why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink.” [1964]

George H.W. Bush: Bush, who would go on to be president after Reagan, said that Medicare shouldn’t be established because it was nothing more than “socialized medicine.” [1964]

Bob Dole: In 1996, during his campaign for the Presidency, Dole openly bragged that he was one of 12 House members who voted against creating Medicare in 1965. “I was there, fighting the fight, voting against Medicare . . . because we knew it wouldn’t work in 1965.” [1965]

Sen. Carl Curtis (NE): During the debate over the creation of Medicare, Curtis said that the “insurance industry has a remarkable record” and that Medicare “is not public welfare. It is not charity. It is not kindness. It is socialism. Socialism is not the answer to anything.” [1965]

Dick Armey: The House GOP leader told reporters in 1995 that “we need to wean our old people away from Medicare.” [1995]

Newt Gingrich: Gingrich, who is now likely running for president, told a Blue Cross Blue Shield conference how he plans to eventually get rid of Medicare: “Now, we don’t get rid of it in round one because we don’t think that that’s politically smart, and we don’t think that’s the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it’s going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it — voluntarily.” [1996]

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (TX): During an appearance on MSNBC last week, Hensarling referred to Medicare along with Social Security as “cruel Ponzi schemes.” [4/15/2011]

In his 2008 film SiCKO, filmmaker Michael Moore featured Ronald Reagan’s campaign against Medicare. Watch it:

It should truly come as no surprise that the GOP has always set its sights on Medicare. After all, it is a single-payer health care system has little involvement from the private insurance industry that is both incredibly efficient and remarkably popular among the general public. It completely violates the conservative mantra that the market should be the arbiter of all things.

Polling shows that the public, including even most Republicans, are overwhelmingly opposed to cuts to the Medicare program. The public is, however, supportive of measures like drug reimportation from Canada and authorizing the Medicare program to use its purchasing power to negotiate for lower drug prices, something that should be uncontroversial but that has been barred thanks to the power of the drug industry. Both of these policy options could save Americans billions of dollars and help shore up the long-term sustainability of Medicare.

The Congressional Budget Office concluded in its study of Ryan’s plan that if it was enacted, seniors would have to pay the majority of their income on health care. In its 46 year-long war on Medicare, the GOP is not only fighting the public health insurance program, but the very idea that we are our brother’s keeper — that we should care what happens to our elderly in the last years of their life, and that no one should spend the last days of their lives fighting with insurance companies just to survive.