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In the months leading up to its passage, the Medicare bill, which guaranteed health coverage to all citizens 65 and older, faced much political opposition, mostly from staunch conservatives who regarded the program as a trend toward socialism. In fact, Dr. Donovan F. Ward, president of the American Medical Association, referred to Medicare as “the first step toward establishment of socialized medicine in the United States.”
Earlier, President John F. Kennedy had tried unsuccessfully to pass a Medicare bill while in office; then when Lyndon B. Johnson became president following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the former vice president managed to narrowly push a Medicare proposal through the Senate in September of 1964. The proposal died, however, in a Senate-House conference committee, due largely to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills, a steadfast Medicare opponent. “Since 1960, Mills has been a one-man barrier to administration programs on medical insurance for the aged through Social Security,” wrote a reporter in the St. Petersburg Times.
The tides turned after the 1964 presidential election, in which Johnson defeated Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in a landslide victory and Congress became predominantly Democratic. In January 1965, Johnson introduced a Medicare program to Congress, and on April 8 the House overwhelmingly passed (313-115) a Medicare bill — with Mills’ blessing. Three months later, the Senate passed a revised $7.5 billion-a-year version of the bill by a vote of 68 to 21.
On July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare into law as part of the Social Security Act of 1965. Johnson declared former President Harry S. Truman the first Medicare beneficiary and bestowed him with the first Medicare card. “No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine,” Johnson said at the bill-signing ceremony. “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.”