This article first appeared in the journal Health, Culture and Society.
Since its inception as a government sanctioned public health insurance program, Medicare has been both a bone of contention between political parties and a beacon from which to gauge the changes in American health care as a whole. Passed as part of the Social Security Amendments of 1965, Medicare had as its focus individuals sixty five years of age and older, with a similar yet state-run program, Medicaid, addressing the medical needs of people with certain disabilities and low income families. Over time, however, Medicare has grown to be the preeminent standard for our nation’s health care in its entirety, with nearly every substantive change to its core foundation signaling a corresponding restructuring of our overall health care system.
The modifications imposed on Medicare, both by market forces and federal legislation, stand as a series of growing pains from which to mark the evolution of the American health care model. By charting these changes through the decades we can better understand the ways in which health care as a whole has morphed from a cost based system to one of performance evaluation. In turn, this may provide us with a glimpse into health care’s future if certain fundamental issues are not addressed in current reform legislation.
The rise of the government’s role in providing health care to its citizens came relatively late in America’s history. For much of its first two centuries the burden of caring for the sick and injured fell to neighbors, friends and relatives, with additional support from individual communities and religious groups. Visits by an actual doctor were generally limited to the home and dictated by local demographics. Almshouses and charity wards provided a certain degree of medical service, as hospitals were few and far between, and often existed solely upon the largess of the surrounding vicinities. Those who had the opportunity to visit a hospital prior to the twentieth century more than likely did so after an accident or as the result of an unfortunate designation of insanity.