Reflecting on 50 years of Medicare

Published 12:03 am Thursday, July 30, 2015

By Anita Bachmann

With Medicare and Medicaid turning 50 today, it is worth asking: how have the programs changed, and how have they changed the country and North Carolina?

The first major change? Easy — size. More than 19 million Americans enrolled in Medicare during its first open enrollment period. Today that number has grown to more than 54 million people, and Medicaid is even larger, with nearly 70 million Americans enrolled.

Among the Americans served by these two programs are nearly 3.6 million here in North Carolina.

And these North Carolinians are likely to get their coverage through a private health plan paid for by Medicare or Medicaid, marking another stark contrast from the programs’ origins.

When Medicare and Medicaid were established, beneficiaries simply signed up and had no further decisions to make about their coverage. Today’s beneficiaries have options. Most can choose from among many private Medicare and Medicaid plans for coverage that’s a good fit for their needs.

The third difference is the breadth of benefits available to beneficiaries. In its earliest days, Medicare coverage was fairly basic — core hospital and doctor services. The gaps in coverage prompted efforts over the years to add new benefits.

Today, both Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries can enjoy comprehensive coverage, including many benefits and services that can help enhance their health and well-being. Most recently, the Affordable Care Act made many preventive care services such as cancer screenings available for no out-of-pocket cost.

As Medicare and Medicaid celebrate their golden anniversary, let’s honor them by doing our part to ensure that the programs are fulfilling their purpose of providing better health and security for Americans.

What can each of us do? If you’re eligible for the programs, take an active role in your health by signing up for coverage, learning about the benefits and services available to you, and working with your health plan and doctors to improve your health.

And if you’re not eligible, think of your friends and loved ones who are, such as your parents and grandparents. Offer to help them navigate through the enrollment process and support them in finding a plan that meets their needs.

And on July 30, take a moment to wish Medicare and Medicaid a happy birthday. They’ve made access to health care possible for our loved ones and neighbors, many of whom would not have been able to afford it otherwise. We can all agree that’s something to celebrate.

Anita Bachmann is the vice president of UnitedHealthcare Community & State in North Carolina. UnitedHealthcare serves nearly 431,000 Medicare beneficiaries in North Carolina.