If President Franklin D. Roosevelt were alive today, he would instantly recognize the Medicare for All Act of 2017 as a crucial next step in the work he began more than three-quarters of a century ago. He would applaud the legislation, which Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his co-sponsors will introduce this Wednesday, but would be shocked that universal health care as a right hadn’t become the law of the land decades ago!
Roosevelt and his fellow architects of Social Security thought universal, government-sponsored health insurance was right around the corner. In a 1938 speech, Molly Dewson, a member of the three-person Social Security Board (predecessor to today’s Social Security Commissioner) reported:
“Adequate health protection [in the form of adequate medical care and paid sick leave, is]…already on the horizon….[C]hild labor, minimum wage, [and] health insurance…will be [enacted], maybe not today or tomorrow but sometime in the not unforeseeable future.”
Roosevelt had originally planned to include national health insurance in his Social Security legislation, but ultimately decided that it was asking for too much at once. Revealingly, when he signed the Social Security Act into law, he explained:
“This law…represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”
Shortly after Social Security was enacted, his administration laid the groundwork for national health insurance by conducting health surveys, convening a conference on the topic, and discussing strategy internally.
The goal of universal, government-sponsored health insurance was never far from Roosevelt’s mind. World War II derailed progress on the issue, but FDR continued to advocate for it. In his budget message to Congress delivered just one month after the nation’s entry into the war, Roosevelt proposed that Social Security be expanded to include hospital insurance, as well as temporary and permanent disability benefits.