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When Harry Truman Pushed for Universal Health Care

November 12, 2019 in History

By Sheila Mulrooney Eldred

Truman felt the middle class was left out when it came to health care coverage and fought to institute a federal health plan paid for through a payroll tax.

When Harry S. Truman enlisted in the army in World War I, he was struck by the number of men deemed unfit for service due to poor health.

“He felt it was a reflection of inadequate health care for parts of the population,” says Randy Sowell, an archivist at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Poor people could receive assistance for health care from charity programs, and wealthy people could afford it—but Truman felt the middle class was left out and ill-served, Sowell explains. So shortly after Truman took over the presidency in 1945, he proposed what he considered to be a practical and reasonable solution: health care for all, paid for through a type of payroll tax.

In a draft message to Congress in 1947, Truman wrote: “Healthy citizens constitute our greatest natural resource, and prudence as well as justice demands that we husband that resource. … as a nation we should not reserve good health and long productive life for the well-to-do, only, but should strive to make good health equally available to all citizens.”

The details of the plan, which became the Wagner-Murray-Dingell Bill, were never hashed out because it never even made it to a vote. Truman later called it the greatest disappointment of his presidency.

American Medical Association Lobbies Against Reform

This letter is President Harry S. Truman’s response to a letter from his friend, Ben Turoff, in which Turoff criticized Truman’s proposal for national health insurance. In his reply, Truman denies that his program is “socialized medicine,” and asserts that the American Medical Association has misrepresented his efforts to provide government health insurance for middle-income Americans.

Truman saw his plan as an expansion of some aspects of the New Deal, a continuation of what he felt President Franklin Roosevelt would have done if he’d lived. But during a time of mounting fear of socialism, the American Medical Association (AMA) campaigned against the plan, concerned about doctors losing autonomy to government.

It even hired a P.R. firm to fight the idea, signaling the beginning of modern political propaganda campaigns, Hoffman says. It was the largest and most expensive campaign of its time. Some of the propaganda took the form of …read more


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