Today in history: President Truman proposes national health program

Seventy years ago, on November 19, 1945, only 7 months into his presidency, Harry S. Truman sent a presidential message to the United States Congress proposing a new national health care program. His ideas aligned closely with the spirit of the New Deal and the post-war recovery envisioned by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died the previous April.

Truman argued that the federal government should play a role in health care, saying,”The health of American children, like their education, should be recognized as a definite public responsibility.” One of the chief aims of Truman’s plan was to insure that all communities, regardless of their size or income level, had access to doctors and hospitals. He emphasized the urgent need for such measures, asserting that “About 1200 counties, 40 percent of the total in the country, with some 15,000,000 people, have either no local hospital, or none that meets even the minimum standards of national professional associations.”

President Truman’s aimed to improve the state of health care in the United States by addressing a number of separate issues. The first was the lack of doctors, dentists, nurses, and other health professionals in many rural or otherwise lower-income areas of the United States. He saw that “the earning capacity of the people in some communities makes it difficult if not impossible for doctors who practice there to make a living.” He proposed to attract doctors to the areas that needed them with federal funding. The second problem was the lack of quality hospitals in rural and lower-income counties. He proposed to provide government funds for the construction of new hospitals across the country. To insure only quality hospitals were built, the plan also called for the creation of national standards for hospitals and other health centers. Truman’s third initiative was closely tied to the first two: It called for a board of doctors and public officials to be created. This board would create standards for hospitals and ensure that new hospitals met these standards. The board would also be responsible for directing federal funds into medical research.

The most controversial aspect of the plan was the proposed national health insurance plan. In his November 19, 1945 address, President Truman called for the creation of a national health insurance fund to be run by the federal government. This fund would be open to all Americans, but would remain optional. Participants would pay monthly fees into the plan, which would cover the cost of any and all medical expenses that arose in a time of need. The government would pay for the cost of services rendered by any doctor who chose to join the program. In addition, the insurance plan would give a cash balance to the policy holder to replace wages lost due to illness or injury.

President Truman’s health proposals finally came to Congress in the form of a Social Security expansion bill, co-sponsored in Congress by Sens. Robert Wagner, D-N.Y., and James Murray, D-Mont., along with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. For this reason, the bill was known popularly as the W-M-D bill.

The American Medical Association (AMA) launched a spirited attack against the bill, capitalizing on fears of communism in the public mind. The AMA characterized the bill as “socialized medicine,” and in a forerunner to the rhetoric of the McCarthy era, called Truman White House staffers “followers of the Moscow party line.” Organized labor was the main public advocate of the bill, but had lost goodwill from the American people in a series of post-war strikes.

Following the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Truman was forced to abandon the W-M-D Bill. Although he was not able to create the health program he desired, he did successfully publicize the issue of health care in America. Other forces stepped in to provide the health care that could not be achieved on the federal level. During his presidency, the not-for-profit health insurance fund Blue Shield-Blue Cross grew from 28 million policies to over 61 million.

When on July 30, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Medicare bill into law at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, he said that it “all started really with the man from Independence.”

For the full text of Pres. Truman’s message to Congress, see here.

Source: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

Photo: Harry Truman.  |  Wikipedia (CC)


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