“I am alive because of government medicine”

Jack Price gave the following talk on July 31, 2010 at the downtown library as part of a Alachua County Labor panel “Happy Birthday Medicare: Protect It, Improve It, Expand It.” We’re running it to celebrate Medicare’s 46th birthday this year. Next month we’ll have a more in-depth look at the threats facing this beloved social program.

“While I was rather flattered by the flyer description, it was not accurate. I was not a labor organizer. Sorry I was never even a union member. But I have been a union supporter all of my life. I supported a teachers’ union organizing effort when I was in grammar school.

When I was in high school, on several afternoons after school, I walked the CWA picket line outside the Southern Bell headquarters on Adams St. in downtown Jacksonville. Throughout my adult life I knew I lived better because there were unions.

Labor Unions have always been in the forefront of the health care access struggles. In the 1930s, unions were unrelenting in their pressure on Franklin Roosevelt for Social Security. The original proposal included health care [for all]. Unfortunately, FDR decided that was too ambitious. But in 1948 Harry Truman renewed the issue.

Here in Florida, in 1950, it was championed by Claude Pepper running for re-election to the Senate. The Florida Medical Society launched a full-throttle attack and in a campaign of red-baiting [and] race-baiting, Pepper lost to George Smathers—a name familiar here in Gainesville. Peppers career was interrupted but he was elected to the House of Representatives from a Miami district where he became universally acclaimed as the champion of the elderly.

The America of the 1960s was very different from the America of today. Unions were robust. We got our news from the newspapers or three networks. There was no Fox News. And the USA was still an industrial power. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson spectacularly defeated Barry Goldwater and healthcare for the elderly was again an issue on the front burner. But Medicare was not easily attained. In the front ranks of the Medicare fight were the unions and the National Council of Senior Citizens [now known as the Alliance of Retired Americans] whose membership was largely retired union members. There was the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), then a much smaller organization, which took no position [on the establishment of Medicare]. It had not yet evolved into the gigantic AARP, the brand and marketing tool.

In 1965, immediately after the Johnson inauguration a massive campaign – petition drives and rallies – was in full operation. I was part of the effort here in Florida. The Florida Young Democrats, what at that time had active chapters not just on campuses but active organizations in all the large counties mobilized fully in the petition drives. I was in my 30’s and an officer of the South Broward Young Democrats. Several Saturdays were spent tabling outside the Food Fair supermarket. Food Fair was a south Florida supermarket chain owned by Maryland Democrats. It no longer exists. I note that Publix and Winn Dixie would not allow us to table on their premises.

Then as the decisive votes in the Congress drew nigh there were huge rallies across the country. In New York City, Madison Square Garden was jammed. Here in Florida, at the Miami Beach Auditorium buses rolled in from every corner of our state [to attend] a gigantic rally keynoted by Rep. Claude Pepper.

Despite massive public support, the passage of Medicare was not easy. President Lyndon Johnson was totally involved at every step, squeezing shoulders of Congress members, telephoning members. A tape recently on TV of Johnson’s conversation with Wilbur Mills, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee—who had resisted saying “this is not the time. It will cost too much.” Lyndon Johnson said, “We need the bill. Just pass the bill and I’ll find the god damn money.” And pass it did!

A great victory—a major step in completing the New Deal agenda. At the time we thought “we’ll take care of the old folks and soon we’ll expand [single payer health care, to everyone].

I’ll always remember watching on TV the bill signing [on July 30, 1965] in the Truman Library in Missouri and President Johnson presenting Medicare card #1 to a beaming Harry Truman. Unfortunately, nothing more happened until 2010. We finally got a healthcare law—less than we had hoped for.

I was young when the struggle began and now I am old. I turned 80 last October 11, a date I share with Eleanor Roosevelt. I am alive because of government medicine. Did you know that if you make it to Medicare [age] your life expectancy has increased 30 percent over that in 1960. We live longer and healthier because of government—namely Medicare. In the intervening years, the NSC disappeared and labor unions have shrunk. But I labor on in the Alliance of Retired Americans, a successor to the NSC, of which I am an at-large Vice President. Seniors desperately need an advocacy organization, as now even Social Security is itself at risk.

There is no retirement for those who make social justice their life’s work. Thank you.”

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