99¢ per month for 3 months
99¢ per month for 3 months

Watkins: Medicaid and Medicare turn 50

Tom Watkins

Fifty years ago, LBJ’s “Great Society” created a healthier nation when on July 30, 1965, Medicare and Medicaid, the two foundations of government health insurances, were signed into law. Since then, millions of poor and elderly have been helped from use of this government safety net to obtain medical care.

According to the The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, during their 50-year history each of these programs has come to play a key role in providing health coverage to millions of Americans and make up a significant component of federal and state budgets.

Medicare, a federal government program, provides health insurance coverage for Americans age 65 and older, regardless of income, as well as those under age 65 with permanent disabilities. Medicaid provides coverage for medical care and long-term care services to low-income people and is jointly financed by federal and state governments, with each state deciding how to structure benefits, eligibility and care delivery within guidelines set by the federal government. Medicaid is also one of the primary ways the Affordable Care Act, actively supported by Gov. Rick Snyder and branded “Healthy Michigan” in our state, expanded coverage to millions more low-income, uninsured adults. Today, both programs cover 111 million Americans.

Before Medicare, almost half of all Americans 65 and older had no health insurance. Today that number is two percent.

Bold bipartisan action a half century ago provided Americans a healthier existence and expanded lifespans.

People with mental illness and intellectual and developments disabilities benefited from the creation of both Medicare and Medicaid. These programs transformed the disabled, elderly and low-income individuals received healthcare.

Most of us know that medical bills can take a huge financial toll, but those at or near the poverty line are already struggling to make ends meet. For low-income individuals without insurance, a string of medical bills is often an irreparable blow.

When President Lyndon Johnson added Medicaid to the Social Security Act in 1965, millions of children, parents, pregnant mothers, seniors and people with disabilities were able to receive consistent healthcare for the first time. If that isn’t a anniversary worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.

Medicare and Medicaid have been an investment in our collective futures. Investments in our children, elderly and persons with disabilities have paid dividends to the nation as a whole.

The positive statistics are worth noting: Within the first decade of Medicaid, African-American infant mortality rates were cut in half. Current data shows that not only does Medicaid improve lifelong outcomes for children, academically, they are achieving better GPA, experience fewer missed schooldays, have higher graduation rates and become higher earning adults.

Over the decade, Medicare and Medicaid have been a lifeline to so many by providing healthcare assistance. But, as far as we have come over the past 50 years, we still have a distance to go. More needs to be done to help those with diseases of the brain: serious mental illness and substance use disorders.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s Excellence in Mental Health Care Act, signed into law last April by President Barack Obama, is another example of how Medicaid can be used to help. This legislation will increase access to community mental health and substance abuse treatment services, while improving Medicaid reimbursement for these services.

The Excellence in Mental Health Act initially provides $25 million in funding to states as planning grants to develop applications to participate in a two-year pilot program. Eight states will be selected to participate in the program, and Michigan is working aggressively to be one of those selected, which will be revealed this September.

The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority board, staff and provider network are excited to partner with the state of Michigan to apply for these new federal funds to help create a better life for persons with mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

Dr. Herbert Smitherman Jr., the DWMHA board chairman and president of the Wayne County Medical Society, understands the value the creation of Medicare and Medicaid 50 years ago has meant to the quality of health care for those that did without for so long. He inspires his board colleagues and staff at DWMHA to provide a system of care that is consumer and community focused, data-driven and evidence-based.

Smitherman gets it right when he states, “Many a grandmother, grandfather and children with a disability and person living in poverty has been helped because our elected leaders created two federal programs; Medicare and Medicaid a half century ago.”

If you know someone with a mental illness, developmental disability or substance use disorder and would like more information about the programs and services at DWMHA, please contact the 24-Hour Crisis Help Line at (800) 241-4949 or visit

Tom Watkins is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.