Fifty-five years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the nation’s first federal health insurance program into law. On July 30, 1955, Medicare and its sister program, Medicaid emerged as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. The War on Poverty’s efforts included increases in federal funding for elementary, secondary, and college education, Head Start, an expansion of Social Security, the Child Nutrition Act, environmental legislation, and support for the arts and humanities, among many other progressive bills.

When Medicare was first established, roughly half of Americans 65 years old and older had no health insurance. Americans who didn’t have access to an employer’s health plan or a private insurance plan were left to figure out healthcare costs on their own. Fortunately, during its first year in effect, more than 19 million low-income, disabled individuals, and older Americans enrolled in Medicare.

“No longer will older Americans be denied the healing miracle of modern medicine,” said President Johnson at the bill signing. “No longer will illness crush and destroy the savings that they have so carefully put away over a lifetime so that they might enjoy dignity in their later years. No longer will young families see their own incomes, and their own hopes, eaten away simply because they are carrying out their deep moral obligations to their parents, and to their uncles, and their aunts.”

Today, Medicare covers more than 62 million Americans. Since its inception, Medicare has been a critical source of health and economic security. Millions of older Americans have been brought out of poverty because of Medicare. As more and more baby boomers turn 65 every day and as life expectancies continue to increase, the number of Medicare beneficiaries is expected to double by 2030.

Because of Medicare, older Americans have access to comprehensive health care, including options based on their budget, lifestyle, and health. Americans with disabilities also have access to health care coverage. It’s safe to say, Medicare has been and continues to be a reliable health solution for Americans throughout the nation.

There are many differences between Medicare at its inception compared to Medicare today. The original Medicare program signed into law by President Johnson included Part A (Hospital Insurance) and Part B (Medical Insurance). Today these two parts are called “Original Medicare.” Back then, Medicare didn’t cover prescription drugs. However, in 2006, prescription coverage took effect under President George W. Bush. In the past, Medicare used private insurers behind the scenes to process claims and didn’t use them to deliver benefits. Now, there are many private insurance plans accessible to Medicare beneficiaries that serve as the consumer-facing side of Medicare.

Throughout the years, Medicare has continuously offered better coverage, improved care, and lower costs. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which strengthened Medicare coverage of preventive care, reduced beneficiary liability for prescription drug costs, instituted reforms of many payment and delivery systems, and created the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. The ACA also mandated that Medicare beneficiaries receive certain preventative care services and health screenings free of charge and reduced the out-of-pocket expenses of Part D prescription drug plan enrollees.

As we mark the 55th anniversary of Medicare, it’s important to recognize how much the program has transformed the nation’s health care system. From protecting the health and well-being of millions of Americans, saving lives to improving the economic security of our nation⎯⎯Medicare continues to progress and serve as the standard-bearer for coverage and innovation in American health care.

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