Fast facts about the health insurance guarantee 50 million Americans rely on.
"Medicare" means different things to different people. Some say it's the best argument for a national single-payer health insurance system. Others will tell you that it's the federal budget's biggest villain, while election strategists call it a campaign defining issue. However, for the nation's 50 million Medicare beneficiaries, Medicare is neither an ideological argument nor a political talking point. For them, Medicare is their health insurance plan.
Of course, it's more than just a health insurance plan. It is a lifeline for millions of our senior citizens. Before Congress created Medicare, in 1965, more than 50 percent of American seniors didn't have health insurance, mostly because the increased health risks associated with aging made health insurance unaffordable. At the time, it was not uncommon for the sick elderly to be treated like second-class citizens, and many aging Americans ended up destitute without necessary health care.
Medicare changed that. As a rock-solid guarantee of essential health services for every American over the age of 65, Medicare has been our country's most important social safety net. But as a health insurance plan, Medicare has never been perfect.
From its outset, Medicare only covered essential inpatient (Part A) and outpatient (Part B) services, which has long meant that seniors had to purchase supplemental private insurance to cover what Medicare does not. One of the reasons I ran for Congress in the early 1980s was to help regulate the market for supplemental Medicare insurance plans, because unscrupulous agents were exploiting holes in the Medicare law to sell seniors worthless policies. (In 1990, former Senator Tom Daschle and I passed the "Medigap" law to regulate the market for supplemental Medicare insurance.)