Attention Obamacare haters: Social security didn’t have a smooth rollout either

Opinion

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As some Republicans gloat over the technical hiccups of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as Obamacare, the glitches aren’t exactly unprecedented.

In his Huffington Post article, “Obamacare Not the First New Program To Have Launch Problems,” Arthur Delaney reminds us of the many challenges social security experienced when it was first introduced.

Allison Linn, in her CNBC article, “Obamacare fight vs. birth of social security: Which was uglier?” adds Medicare to the mix. Neither program was welcomed with open arms.

Social security critics of the time likened the move to socialism, which was a very dirty word for many during that era. Robin Toner’s 2007 New York Times article, “New Deal Debate For a New Era,” which tackled health care while Obama was on the campaign trail, lobbying for the first term of his present job, points out an exchange on Capitol Hill as the idea of Social Security was taking form that Linn also highlights in her article.

“Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, Democrat of Oklahoma, put it bluntly when Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor, testified on Capitol Hill that year about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan for a new program called Social Security.”

‘Isn’t this socialism?’ Senator Gore demanded. When Ms. Perkins denied it, he asked again: ‘Isn’t this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?’”

Today it may be hard to imagine “socialism” as an evil threat but, at the time, many politicians feared the systems being implemented in Western Europe would take hold in the U.S. And this was a bad move in their eyes. Healthcare was so daunting a task that Toner notes even “Harry Truman tried but failed to deliver a national health insurance program.” Of course Bill Clinton also failed to implement his healthcare plan. So, in that respect, that Obama has even gotten this far is a triumph, even if at this moment of government shutdowns and website mishaps it’s hard to discern.

Technical difficulties, as Delaney emphasizes in his article, are not unique to Obamacare. Social security’s difficulties seemed far more insurmountable at the time. “It wasn’t easy,” writes Delaney. “After Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935, a nascent Social Security Board faced a daunting task: enrolling 26 million industrial workers in less than a year, and another 2.5 million each year after that. One major problem: A lot of people had the same name.”

For many, that reality made Social Security impossible to implement. Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican presidential nominee whom F.D.R. defeated by a landslide, called social security a “cruel hoax” and “fraud on the workingman.” Eventually, as Nancy Altman documents in her 2005 book, The Battle for Social Security, that problem was solved by devising the numerical system that created Social Security numbers.

With that hurdle cleared, another one popped up. “But how to reach the workers?” writes Delaney. Altman, whose book he quotes, explains that “‘Letter carriers delivered applications for numbers, helped people fill out the forms, answered questions about the program, returned the forms to typing centers where the cards could be produced, delivered the cards to the workers, and transmitted the applications of workers together with their newly-assigned Social Security numbers to [headquarters in] Baltimore.’”

Linn notes that Medicare was opposed by the American Medical Association, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. “In 1961,” writes Linn, “the future president recorded a speech in which he painted a dark picture of a time in which doctors would be told by the government which patients they could see, and where.

If his listeners didn’t oppose Medicare, he warned, the medical plan would be followed by ‘other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country.’”

Much like Dr. Ben Carson’s ridiculous claim that Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” Reagan argued that if Medicare was implemented “. . . one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

So, in that respect, the Republicans are using an old script. Thankfully history seems to be in Obama’s favor. If Social Security and Medicare made it all the way through to implementation, there is little reason to believe that the Affordable Care Act will not follow suit. And the reality is: it has to.

In her 2009 article for CNN.com, Theresa Tamkins wrote, “Bankruptcies due to medical bills increased by nearly 50 percent in a six-year period, from 46 percent in 2001 to 62 percent in 2007, and most of those who filed for bankruptcy were middle-class, well-educated homeowners, according to a report that will be published in the August issue of The American Journal of Medicine.”

The situation is dire, as lead author of that article, Harvard’s Steffie Woolhandler, M.D., told Tamkins, ‘Unless you’re a Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, you’re one illness away from financial ruin in this country.’ During his first presidential run, Obama said, in response to then Republican criticism, “We can start getting into an ideological argument about whether we’re slipping into socialism, [b]ut as long as there are 9 million children in the United States of America with no health insurance, it is a betrayal of our ideals that we hold as Americans.”

And, today, glitches and all, Obamacare, despite Republican strong arm tactics, will prevail because, like social security and Medicare before it, the need is far greater than the opposition.