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Thank NM senator for Medicare as it turns 55

This is a time for New Mexico – indeed for America – to celebrate the crowning achievement of the late Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, D-N.M.

On a steamy hot day in Independence, Missouri, 55 years ago, our proud and distinguished senator joined the president of the United States for a bill-signing ceremony that would provide national health care to millions of Americans.

It was July 30, 1965. Sen. Anderson joined President Lyndon Johnson and former President Harry S. Truman for the official birth of Medicare – the national health care act for the elderly. Johnson signed the Medicare bill – an amendment to the Social Security Act – at the Truman Library in honor of the former president who was a lifelong advocate for national health care.

And it marked the successful end to a grueling congressional battle for Anderson, a proud Albuquerque resident who dedicated four years of his 24-year Senate career to this one issue. It would eventually prove to be one of the most successful legislative acts of the 20th century.

Anderson beamed as he accepted the pen used by Johnson to sign the King-Anderson Bill, as it was known in Congress. Its name honored U.S. Rep. Cecil King of California and Anderson. King, also a Democrat, was the manager of the bill in the House of Representatives and Anderson guided the bill through the Senate.

The bill was introduced in the Senate by Anderson on Feb. 13, 1961. King introduced it on the same day in the House. It took four years of horse trading, numerous committee hearings, floor debate and amendments before it became law and officially took effect in January 1966. The original bill covered health care for citizens 68 and older. Anderson successfully lowered the age to 65.

Anderson used a full chapter of his autobiography, “Outsider in The Senate,” to describe the intense battles as many Republicans and some southern Democrats fought to scuttle Medicare. They failed and, because of Medicare’s success and popularity, it has become part of the national health care debate.

As Anderson noted in his book, President Franklin Roosevelt contemplated including health care for the elderly in the Social Security Act. But FDR dropped that idea, according to Anderson, out of concern it might defeat the Social Security bill. A decade later, President Truman proposed a national health insurance plan. It was labeled “socialist” by the Republicans in the Senate and by organized medicine groups. The bill died.

The first Senate vote on the Medicare Act was on July 17, 1962, when it was defeated on the Senate floor by a vote of 52-48. Anderson vowed to make Medicare the hottest issue of that coming fall campaign “and we would not relent until we passed it.”

Finally, after three more years of committee hearings and floor debate, the Medicare bill passed the House, 313-115, on April 8, 1965.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, the final GOP move to scuttle the bill occurred in the Finance Committee, where the bill had swelled to a 409-page document. The roll call to send the bill to the Senate floor was 12-5, with four Republican senators joining Democrat Harry Byrd in voting “no.”

On July 9, 1965, the $7.5 billion Medicare Act passed the Senate floor 68-21. A conference committee ironed out differences between the House version and Anderson’s Senate bill and quickly OK’d the measure.

“Medicare was a reality and could not be abolished,” Anderson said. “The bill was far better than we ever dreamed it could be.”

Medicare is now recognized as one of the great acts of Congress alongside the Social Security Act, Civil Rights Act, and the GI Bill of Rights. It is appreciated and supported by our country’s senior citizens.

Indeed, Sen. Anderson and his Medicare legacy have made New Mexico proud.

Ed Mahr is a former assistant managing editor of the Journal and was secretary of corrections under former Govs. Jerry Apodaca and Bruce King. He recently retired as a long-time New Mexico contract lobbyist.

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