Richard Nixon and Health Care Reform... a Man Ahead of His time.
I read an interesting article written by the political commentator, Ben Stein, the other day. Mr. Stein is probably best-known as the monotone high school teacher in Ferris Beuller's Day Off. However, before his days on the silver screen, Ben Stein was a speech writer for President Richard Nixon. Yea, it's a small world... Stein is a well-known conservative, but his particular brand of conservatism harkens back to what I call the days of the compassionate Right. This were the late 1960's, the early 70's and boy, how things have changed.Stein wrote, as I too observed in the televised speech President Obama made after signing healthcare into law, that Richard Nixon was notably absent as the President read name after name of past pioneers for healthcare reform. Mentioned were Teddy Roosevelt, Ted Kennedy, Senator Dingle, etc, but no Dick Nixon. In all seriousness, when I listened to the speech I was a more than a little taken aback by this slight. Ben Stein was as well. But first, a bit of history. President Lyndon Johnson with the signing of the The Social Security Act of 1965 ushered in, what was viewed by Johnson, as another great element in his vision of the Great Society. Now Medicare and Medicaid were not easy items to get on the books - not by any stretch. The American Medical Association, among many, had greatly opposed the bill for fears that it would federalize the American Health Care System, but under the Johnson administration, a compromise was reached. Johnson was able to get the Social Security Act of 1965 passed with a bi-partisan deal worked out with then Republican Congressman John Byrnes of Wisconsin. And that is how Washington used to get things done - a little give, a little take, etc. By the time Richard Nixon took office, the healthcare debate was yet again becoming a heated topic in Washington. And no wonder - for decades the million dollar question has been the following: how to provide affordable, quality healthcare to a large and extremely diverse county under a federalist system and keep everyone happy. Well that question remains the million dollar question as evidenced by the recent hellabulu in Washington. Teddy Roosevelt in no less than 1912 proposed a national health insurance program as part of his "Square Deal," But you see how far that went. In 1971, President Nixon went to Congress with a proposal to require, to mandate that all companies provide a health care plan for their employees. And federal government would provide for the poor by way of federal subsidies for low-income workers, etc. Nixon was quite intrigued by the idea of Health Maintenance Organizations or HMO's as they are more popularly known. These were essentially "pools' of doctors who worked on a salary basis as opposed to the more traditional fee for service as we see today. An example: Doctor X agrees to treat Y number of patients for company Z. The doctor receives a set amount of money to treat any individual patient for a set period of time for general treatment. Not a bad idea - and it worked for Kaiser Permanente so why not for everyone else? And so we come back to Ted Kennedy, the Senate Majority Leader, at the time. And remember, this idea of universal health care was nearly as partisan of an issue then as it is today. I mean, this was clearly what conservatives today would label socialism. And Nixon's proposal, call it what you will, was straight out of the Socialists' Playbook. Once more, Nixon was a vehement anti-communist - of this there was no doubt. But more importantly, he realized something had to be done. Just as it is now, healthcare costs were eating the country alive. And this is where the Democrats really screwed the pooch in my opinion. The Democrats, led by Ted Kennedy, opposed the measure citing that it would be too pro-insurance only serving to fund the insurance industry. And once more, big labor backed the Democratic opposition. But, as is often the case in the back offices of Washington, Kennedy continued to negotiate with the White House all the while spouting anti-Nixon rhetoric in public. Such is the game of politics sad to say. And in the end, the White House caved; pressures from small business owners and the American Medical Association crippled the battle for reform. Kennedy and the Democrats were pressured by labor leaders, urged to hold out for a single-payer system. See the Democrats were convinced that with the Watergate Scandal, taking back the White House was a sure thing. And it was with the election of Jimmy Carter, but healthcare reform went unanswered for another thirty-odd years. In some sense, this was a who gets credit for the big win and who doesn't proposition. President Richard Nixon was so devoted to healthcare reform that it figured prominently in his 1974 State of the Union Address to Congress and the American Public. Here is a quote. "The time is at hand this year to bring comprehensive, high quality
healtcare within the reach of every American..."
So, in the end with his presidency greatly weakened by the Watergate Scandal and pressure from lobbyists backed by the AFL-CIO and the United Autoworkers' Union, universal healthcare coverage was torpedoed out of the water. But the point to take from this is simple and timeless: you take what you can get, perfect or otherwise, and let posterity improve on it. Until the day he died, it is rumored that Senator Kennedy's huge regret in his political life was not making the deal with the White House during the Nixon years. And back to the point of my story; President Obama, give credit where credit is due. Richard Nixon's name belongs in the rolls of the past pioneers for healthcare reform. President Nixon's vision of a lasting fix to the American healthcare issue was full of wisdom, compassion, and pragmatism. Add his name to the ranks.