Harry and Health Care

Contributed by Wendy R. Leibowitz


“I have had some bitter
disappointments as president, but the one that has troubled me most, in a
personal way, has been the failure to defeat organized opposition to a national
compulsory health insurance program.”

-Letter, cited in Poen, Monte M.: Strictly Personal and Confidential: The
Letters Harry Truman Never Mailed,
Boston: Little Brown, ed. 1982. See
also:  http://www.thealliancefordemocracy.org/pdf/AfDJR3314.pdf

 

Following the health care reform
debate of 2009 was difficult enough, but one thing made it harder for some
Truman Scholars: the failure of many media outlets to mention Harry S. Truman
as the first president to champion national obligatory health insurance
coverage. Many publications and electronic services mentioned Clinton’s failed
attempt, but the references to “HillaryCare” far outnumbered references to
“HarryCare.”  (OK, that term did not
exist when Truman held office. But shouldn’t it have been invoked in 2009?)
Truman’s efforts, over many years, to obtain national compulsory health
insurance were strikingly more similar to the current administration’s efforts
than more modern efforts had been.

Within
a year of taking office, Truman called
for compulsory health insurance for all, funded by payroll deductions. All
citizens would receive medical and hospital services regardless of ability to
pay. The plan went nowhere. Actually, it went nowhere twice—reform efforts
failed in both his first term (1945-1949) and his second term (1949-1953).

The first time he proposed it, Truman simply did not
have the stature or the personal influence over Congress to bring such a change
about.  He had been vice president for
only 82 days when President Franklin Roosevelt died. Truman’s image was of
someone who had become president by a “wild accident,” in the words of a
newspaper columnist of the day, Max Lerner. David McCullough, in his
best-selling biography, Truman,
explains that Truman’s plain-speaking style—a stark contrast to FDR’s more
elegant speech—did not help polish Truman’s image as a powerful statesman who
could steer the ship of state well, let alone into the unknown waters of universal
health insurance. Truman himself stated to the press corps, shortly after
taking the oath of office: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t
know if you fellas ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me
what happened yesterday, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets
had fallen on me.” After Truman left office, his honesty came to be
admired, but at the outset of his presidency, the “I’m just a man from
Missouri” talk did not increase people’s confidence in his abilities.

Truman’s
relations with Congress were rocky, and his poll numbers low. Still, in
November 1945, Truman
called for the creation of a national health insurance fund to be run by the
federal government. The fund would be optional and open to all. Participants
would pay monthly fees into the plan, which would cover the cost of any and all
medical expenses. The government would pay for the cost of services rendered by
any doctor who chose to join the program. Truman argued that the federal
government should play a role in health care, saying that, “The health of
American children, like their education, should be recognized as a definite
public responsibility.”

For the first time in our country’s
history, Congress had before it an official administration proposal for a
general program of national health insurance: the Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill. Truman
called national health insurance a cornerstone of “The Fair Deal.” The idea in
general was popular: a poll published in Forbes
magazine showed 74 percent of the public favoring such a plan, and a Gallup
poll showed 59 percent favored some kind of broad national program of health
insurance.

But the plan couldn’t even get a
hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee. The hearings in the Senate
were bitter and divisive in ways that might sound familiar today. The acrimony
did not help further a civil discussion of the issues. In the 1946
congressional elections, the New Deal-Fair Deal programs were a major campaign
focus. The Republicans won their first majority in Congress since 1932 using
the slogan, “Had Enough?”

Subsequent years solidified the
opposition to government health insurance. Organized labor turned to employers
to provide health care for their employees. The American Medical Association
asserted some of the same arguments that helped kill “HillaryCare”: the United
States already had the highest standards of medical care in the world. While
there were some problems, great progress was being made at addressing them
within the free enterprise system. Second, government control of medical care
would undermine the existing system (which was the best system in the world,
etc.)  Additionally, universal health
insurance would be so expensive that it might bankrupt a country that needed to
rebuild Europe after the war, fight Communism abroad and at home, and
strengthen the free enterprise system. Finally, the AMA felt it was
unnecessary: private insurance was capable of doing the job. The doctors’
organization distributed millions of pamphlets and won endorsements from almost
2,000 organizations, from the American Bar Association and the American Dental
Association through the Catholic Church and the General Federation of Women’s
Clubs. Support for national health insurance evaporated.
Even after Truman won a stunning electoral victory in 1948, with national
health care as a new plank in the Democratic platform, the plan could not make
it out of committee. His “Whistle Stop Tour” of the country—9,505 miles, through 18 states, delivering 73
speeches—helped to restore a (small) Democratic majority in Congress. But
other concerns, from ant-Communism to the newly shaky economy to the Korean
War, took precedence. By the election of 1950, a conservative postwar Congress married
health insurance to patriotism. Opposition to the private insurance system was
portrayed as un-American and “revolutionary,” particularly by the
American Medical Association.

On July 30,
1965, President Lyndon Johnson traveled to Independence, Missouri, to sign the
new Medicare bill at the Truman Library so a frail Truman could be in
attendance. According to McCullough’s biography, Truman sat with a cane in his
lap as Johnson signed the law for health insurance for the elderly that Truman
had championed (for all) two decades ago. 
McCullough writes that Truman said, “You have made me a very, very happy
man.”

Wendy R. Leibowitz (DC ’80) is a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC.

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or write a feature for the Truman Scholars Blog, please contact
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