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Ted Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Universal Health Care

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by September 19, 2009 blog

“Turning now to the rest of the agenda for 1974, the time is at hand this year to bring comprehensive, high quality health care within the reach of every American. I shall propose a sweeping new program that will assure comprehensive health insurance protection to millions of Americans who cannot now obtain it or afford it, with vastly improved protection against catastrophic illnesses.” (Richard Nixon, January 30, 1974)
Over 35 years ago, Senator Ted Kennedy tried to collaborate with President Richard Nixon to achieve a goal that both dearly desired: universal health care insurance for all Americans. It was an odd partnership, as Kennedy and Nixon were political rivals, and Nixon was fearful of running against Kennedy in the 1972 Presidential election. After Nixon won the elections, Kennedy began secret negotiations with the White House that almost led to an agreement on a health care plan. Nixon introduced his Comprehensive Health Insurance Act on Feb. 6, 1974. It would’ve built upon existing employer-sponsored insurance plans and would’ve provided government subsidies to the self-employed and small businesses to ensure universal access to health insurance. Sadly, the Watergate scandal derailed Nixon and Kennedy’s efforts at health care reform.
Steve Pearlstein wrote an article in the August 28, 2009 edition of the Washington Post that detailed the regret that Kennedy had over not being able to make a deal with Nixon on health care. Pearlstein wrote:

“Asked about his greatest regret as a legislator, Ted Kennedy would usually cite his refusal to cut a deal with Richard Nixon on health care.
…At first, Kennedy rejected Nixon’s proposal as nothing more than a bonanza for the insurance industry that would create a two-class system of health care in America. But after Nixon won reelection, Kennedy began a series of secret negotiations with the White House that almost led to a public agreement. In the end, Nixon backed out after receiving pressure from small-business owners and the American Medical Association. And Kennedy himself decided to back off after receiving heavy pressure from labor leaders, who urged him to hold out for a single-payer system once Democrats recaptured the White House in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Thirty-five year later, the single-payer dream of Democratic liberals still remains politically out of reach. But it should tell you how far the country has moved to the right that the various proposals put forward by a Democratic president and Congress bear an eerie resemblance to the deal cooked up between Kennedy and Nixon, while Nixon’s political heirs vilify it as nothing less than a socialist plot.”

It would seem odd that Nixon and Kennedy would collaborate on health care reform, but that cause was something that was dear to both of their hearts. Ted Kennedy is widely known as a champion of health care. It is not as well known, however, that Nixon too was a strong lifelong supporter of health care. Richard Nixon grew up poor and he lost two brothers to tuberculosis, and the illnesses devastated his family’s finances. When Nixon first came to Congress in 1947, he proposed a national health insurance bill. As President, Nixon introduced the National Health Insurance Partnership program in 1971, which had government support for private employer related health insurance, health insurance for low-income families, and health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Kevin G. Hall wrote in a November 28, 2007 article for McClatchy Newspapers:
“Nixon first proposed national health insurance as a conservative California congressman in 1947. He grew up poor and lost two brothers to tuberculosis, which marked him for life. He frequently pointed to the cure for tuberculosis as a medical marvel that underscored the need for a public-private partnership on health care.
“It was something personal for him,” Price said of Nixon’s health-care push.”

Thirty five years after Nixon made his proposals for universal health care reform, President Obama is making similar proposals for reform on our health care system. Like Nixon, Obama would build upon the present health care system to provide universal access to health care. Obama would agree with Nixon statement on February 5, 1974, which Nixon stated that he did not want to see “other families of modest means… driven, basically to bankruptcy because of the inability to handle medical care problems of a catastrophic type.”
Nixon’s and Obama’s reform proposals are not radical changes to the current health care system, and neither are socialist. As Steve Pearlstein notes, the past 30 years has seen the political center to the right after the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, and proposals that would be moderate in Nixon’s time seem more radical today. Obama and today’s progressives need to push the political center more to the left again, to be able to define the debate on progressive reforms on more fair terms. I’m not a fan of Richard Nixon, but his advocacy of health care reform is something that many people can support. If someone like Nixon has advocated universal health care proposals that are similar to Obama’s, then it should show people that those proposals aren’t socialist, but work to improve the capitalist system of its flaws.

In his 1992 book, “Seize the Moment,” Nixon wrote a passage that eerily echoes the arguments of Democrats today:

“We need to work out a system that includes a greater emphasis on preventive care, sufficient public funding for health insurance for those who cannot afford it in the private sector, competition among healthcare providers and health insurance providers to keep down the costs of both, and decoupling the cost of healthcare from the cost of adding workers to the payroll.”


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