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Expand medicare Joe Biden

Supporters listen to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden during a drive-in campaign rally at Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Park on November 01, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Democrats Have An Historic Opportunity To Advance FDR's Vision For Universal, Guaranteed Health Care

Now is the moment to walk the walk, to add action to the rhetoric.

Nancy J. Altman

When President Biden spoke at the Democratic convention nearly a year ago, he pledged to follow in the footsteps of one of our nation's greatest presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"Nearly a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt pledged a New Deal in a time of massive unemployment, uncertainty, and fear," said Biden. "Stricken by disease, stricken by a virus, FDR insisted that he would recover and prevail and he believed America could as well. And he did. And so can we."

"The Biden Administration is doing admirable work combatting the pandemic. But just defeating COVID isn't enough."

Like FDR, Biden and his Democratic allies in Congress understand the importance of we, the people, to the strength and success of our country. That's why they are working to pass a $3.5 trillion human infrastructure package. If they act as boldly as FDR did, that package could be the most consequential legislation in a generation.

FDR, his Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and their allies had a much broader definition of Social Security than the one we use today. They understood the term as a synonym for economic security. They knew that to ensure economic security, all of us need the assurance that if faced with an illness, we or our loved ones will receive high-quality treatment as a guaranteed right.

They understood that to be economically secure, all of us must have universal, guaranteed health care as our birthright. Today's Democrats appropriately proclaim that health care should be a right, not a privilege. Now is the moment to walk the walk, to add action to the rhetoric.

President Roosevelt sought to enact guaranteed, universal health care, as did his successor, President Harry Truman. But the for-profit drug companies, hospitals, and the others in the medical-industrial complex defeated their efforts. As a fallback, President Lyndon Johnson, always the pragmatist, decided to reach that goal incrementally, starting with Medicare for seniors. In 1972, people with disabilities were added to Medicare, but that's where progress stopped.

Democrats have the opportunity to pass a package that takes the next big step in that direction. The following Medicare and Medicaid improvements are being debated as you read these words:

  1. Creating an out-of-pocket cap in Medicare, because no one should go bankrupt trying to pay for health care.
  2. Adding the essential benefits of vision, hearing, and dental care to Medicare.
  3. Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60, as Medicare's architects anticipated and as President Biden promised in his campaign.
  4. Empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices not just for seniors and people with disabilities but for everyone in America.
  5. Allowing people to remain in their homes, rather than forced into institutions, by funding home and community-based long-term care.

Each of these steps would make Americans more economically secure, and enormously improve our lives. It exemplifies the promise to build back better.

For a grandmother who can't afford treatment for the loss of her hearing, improving Medicare's benefits would mean finally hearing her grandchildren's voices and actually being able to talk to them. For a 62-year-old who has been putting off medical care, lowering the Medicare eligibility age would mean getting a cancer diagnosis in time for effective treatment.

For a dad with diabetes, lower insulin prices would mean that he is able to treat his wife to dinner for their wedding anniversary. And for an 80-year-old with Alzheimer's, long-term care funding would mean the opportunity to stay in her own home near friends and family, instead of going to a cold, impersonal institution.

"One reason the pandemic hit the U.S. so much worse than elsewhere is that both our health care and long-term care systems are designed to maximize corporate profit rather than provide care to those who need it."

All of these steps would improve our country's ability to meet the needs of seniors, a group that has been disproportionately hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. Older Americans are an invaluable part of our communities, but the infrastructure systems in place to support them have been underfunded for decades—or, worse, don't even exist at all.

One reason the pandemic hit the U.S. so much worse than elsewhere is that both our health care and long-term care systems are designed to maximize corporate profit rather than provide care to those who need it. As a result, over 600,000 Americans have died, including over 180,000 nursing home residents and workers.

The Biden Administration is doing admirable work combatting the pandemic. But just defeating COVID isn't enough. We must ensure that when the next pandemic comes along, it will be nowhere near as devastating because our country will be stronger. We must ensure that when one of us faces our own health care crisis, the infrastructure is there to care for us.

We must learn from the wisdom of Roosevelt, Perkins, and their allies. In a nationwide radio address during the Great Depression, Perkins stated:

"We cannot be satisfied merely with makeshift arrangements which will tide us over the present emergencies. We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future."

These are the words that should guide Democrats in Congress as they craft their legislation. If they succeed, President Biden will go down in history as a worthy successor to FDR's legacy—a President who didn't just bring our country out of a massive crisis, but also built a legacy for our children and their children.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Nancy Altman

Nancy J. Altman

Nancy J. Altman is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. She has a 40-year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. Her latest book is "The Truth About Social Security: The Founders' Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies, and Common Misunderstandings" (2018). She is also the author of "The Battle for Social Security" (2005).

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