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A Brief History And Overview

The issue of national health insurance was debated periodically in the United States after World War II. Gradually, the focus shifted to a strategy to begin with older persons. President John F. Kennedy made this one of his major campaign issues in 1960. But it was not until 1965, during a period of considerable social activism, that the legislation was finally passed. Persons over the age of sixty-five were singled out because they had higher rates of poverty and lower rates of insurance than other groups. As a social insurance program, the goals of Medicare have been to provide equal access to care for those who are eligible, supported by taxpayers (who will later become beneficiaries). By most accounts, it has been extremely successful.

Initially, everyone over the age of sixty-five in 1965 was eligible to participate in Medicare when it began in July of 1966. After that, eligibility was limited to persons over the age of sixty-five who qualified for some type of Social Security benefit, usually as a worker or dependent. This still captures about 98 percent of all persons age sixty-five and older. In 1972, the program's scope was expanded to include persons who receive Social Security Disability Insurance, following a two-year waiting period. In addition, persons with end-stage renal disease—who face costly kidney dialysis treatments— were also added to the program. Over 39 million persons, nearly one in every eight Americans, were enrolled in Medicare in 2000, up from 19 million in 1966.

The benefits covered by Medicare have been altered little since 1965, although changes in the way care is delivered in the United States have affected the size of the various components of the benefit package. Part A of Medicare, also called Hospital Insurance, covers inpatient hospital services, up to one hundred days of care in a skilled nursing facility following a hospital stay, and hospice care. Part B of Medicare, referred to as Supplementary Medical Insurance, covers physician services, outpatient hospital care, laboratory testing, and ambulatory services. Home health care services—skilled care such as rehabilitation services provided to persons who are homebound— have been subject to a number of changes in recent years; presently these services are divided between the two parts of the program.

Part A of Medicare is financed by a payroll tax of 1.45 percent of all wages assessed on both employers and employees (when the program began, that tax rate was 0.35 percent, and has gradually increased over time). The rate of the tax has not changed since 1986, although the amount subject to tax has risen. In 1993, the upper limit on the tax was eliminated so that all wages are subject to the Medicare payroll tax. Part B is voluntary and financed by premiums on beneficiaries and by general revenues sufficient to make up the level of spending required. The premium initially paid 50 percent of the costs of Part B, but legislation reduced this share beginning in 1972 because Medicare's costs were growing substantially faster than incomes of beneficiaries. It was set at 25 percent of the costs of a beneficiary's benefits on a temporary basis starting in 1982, and it became a permanent requirement in 1997.

When Medicare began, it was dominated by inpatient hospital care, which accounted for about two-thirds of all spending. Indeed, most of the focus of debate before Medicare's passage was on Part A of the program. But as care has moved out of the inpatient setting, Part B has become Figure 1 SOURCE: Health Care Financing Association, Office of the Actuary 1997 a much larger share of the program. Care in hospital outpatient departments and in physicians' offices now replaces many surgeries and treatments formerly done only in inpatient settings. In addition, skilled nursing facility care and home health—referred to as post-acute care—have also increased in importance over time. When individuals leave a hospital after only a few days, post-acute care is often needed as a transition. But these benefits have also come under increased scrutiny for moving Medicare into the domain of long-term care services.

Another original principle of the program was that it would not interfere with the practice of medicine. Payments were designed to be as much like the standard insurance policies then in place as possible. But costs for the program rose rapidly almost from the beginning, and in the mid-1970s it became clear that the government needed to slow spending growth. This was done largely through application of new payment policies. Traditional Medicare has remained a fee-for-service program in which beneficiaries are free to see any hospitals or doctors they wish.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3Medicare - A Brief History And Overview, Changes In Payment Policies, Other Medicare Policies Affecting Health Care Delivery