Sunday, February 6, would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday. During the Reagan presidency, a lot of important, historic things happened, but health care policy wasn’t a big focus for the White House in those days. That’s not to say, however, that Reagan didn’t have well-developed views on the subject.
In 1961, Reagan recorded an LP on behalf of the American Medical Association’s Operation Coffee Cup, a campaign to defeat the single-payer health plan that came to be known as Medicare. (Doctors’ wives would organize coffee meetings in order to persuade their friends to write letters to Congress in opposition to the bill.)
You can listen to Reagan’s recording, “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine,” in the YouTube video below. One of the more interesting bits occurs at the 3:44 mark, where Reagan endorses the Kerr-Mills Act of 1960, an alternative to Medicare that was sponsored by two conservative Democrats, Sen. Robert Kerr (D., Okla.) and Rep. Wilbur Mills (D., Ark.). Kerr-Mills, signed into law by President Eisenhower, empowered the federal government to provide block grants to states, that states could then use to create their own programs for the medically needy:
What is the Kerr-Mills bill? It is a frank recognition of the medical need or problem of our senior citizens that I have mentioned. And it has provided, from the federal government, money to the states and the local communities that can be used at the discretion of the state to help those people who need it.
Now what reason could the other people have for backing a bill which says, “We insist on compulsory health insurance for senior citizens on a basis of age alone, regardless of whether they are worth millions of dollars, whether they have an income, whether they’re protected by their own insurance, whether they have savings?” I think we could be excused for believing that, as ex-Congressman Forand said, this was simply an excuse to bring about what they wanted all the time: socialized medicine.
James Madison in 1788, speaking to the Virginia Convention, said, “Since the general civilization of mankind, I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power, than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
You don’t hear much about the Kerr-Mills Act anymore, for a reason. After the enormously consequential election of 1964, which returned Lyndon Johnson to the White House and swept large liberal majorities into Congress, the Kerr-Mills Act was rendered obsolete by the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
Had it been allowed to play out, Kerr-Mills could have evolved into an effective, federalist approach to health care reform. We’ll never know.