A postage stamp cost 3 cents, milk was 84 cents a gallon, a bottle of Coke was a nickle, bread was 14 cents a loaf, and a Democratic Senator from the State of Minnesota proposed a comprehensive national health insurance system that would reduce medical costs for a majority of Americans. The year was 1949 and the senator was Hubert Humphrey, who was later to serve as Vice President and the 1968 Democratic presidential candidate.
Writing in The New York Times, Senator Humphrey, a member of the new Senate Subcommittee on Health, wrote that the primary goal of a national health insurance program was to bring adequate medical care to all of the people of the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed for such a program in 1939, but Republican opposition and World War II derailed his plans.
Even in 1949, as Humphrey pointed out, American medicine, the world’s finest, was “priced beyond general purchasing ability.” Humphrey knew all about the high cost of drugs as he had been a practicing pharmacist with many years of experience prior to entering politics in Minnesota. Humphrey also pointed out that “for most of us serious illness means all too frequently wiped-out savings, unpaid bills, and mortgaged futures.” The “fee-for-service” system of 1949, because of Republican opposition to a comprehensive national program and greedy insurance companies, was the status quo until President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, which, far from being the type of comprehensive national health insurance system proposed by Humphrey, has provided a health care umbrella over tens of millions of Americans. If Donald Trump and his toadies on the Supreme Court, including his “handmaiden” nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, have their way, the calendar for health care will be set back to 1949, with Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor disappearing in their present forms.
1949 saw one doctor for 1700 Americans in rural areas. The death rate for women in childbirth was three times as high in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina as it was in Minnesota, Connecticut, or Rhode Island. Infant mortality rates followed the same pattern.
Humphrey hit out at group health insurance plans. He pointed out that Blue Cross covered a mere 21 percent of a family’s annual medical bill. In rural areas, Humphrey pointed out that Blue Cross/Blue Shield coverage was held by less than 3 percent of the population. He also noted that 85 million Americans possessed no health insurance coverage. Humphrey also criticized archaic policies like Blue Cross/Blue Shield for failing to provide periodic check-ups, immunizations and inoculations, pre- and post-natal care, access to specialists, or preventive medicine. Humphrey criticized organized medical societies and the insurance companies for their concerted efforts to derail state-level health insurance programs like the Group Health Cooperative in Minnesota and a similar operation in Wisconsin.
Humphrey cited Britain’s new National Health Service Act, which was supported by the medical establishment and the Conservative Party, as a good general template for the United States. Unlike the United States, the British system, implemented by the left-of-center Labor Party government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was also supported by Conservative Party leader Winston Churchill. In the United States, the Republicans, their bank accounts stuffed with campaign contributions from the American Medical Association and the insurance companies, stood against a U.S. national health insurance program.
President Harry S Truman, with Humphrey’s support, introduced a bill authorizing the creation of the National Health Program. It had the following provisions:
- payments for benefits shall be proportion to incomes
- all persons shall obtain medical services as a right, not as a charity
- all persons shall be insured with the free choice of their doctors
- discrimination based on race, color, or creed shall be banned
- physicians and other medical professionals, including nurses, shall be assured freedom in the practice of their professions and assistance in maintaining high standards
- shall allot substantial funds annually for scholarships, grants to professional schools for research, and concrete aid to underdoctored areas, such as ambulance services and subsidies to young doctors
- administration of the act shall be based upon the “American principle of decentralization.”
The Truman-Humphrey bill would have covered 85 percent of the population, including the self-employed, employees, and their dependents. Preexisting conditions was not even an issue with the Democratic program. It was a restriction for coverage drawn up by the health insurance industry decades later. The critics of the 1949 plan hurled the same tripe as Republicans do today: socialism, government-assigned doctors, life and death panels, etc. The false talking points against a national health care system in 1949 were as inane then as they are today.
Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.
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Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).