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A health care battle of a different era

Rolland "Rollie" Redlin served just one term in Congress from North Dakota, but it was a watershed session. Now 89 and living in retirement in Rapid City, S.D., Redlin was in the U.S. House in 1965 when Medicare was established.

Rolland "Rollie" Redlin served just one term in Congress from North Dakota, but it was a watershed session. Now 89 and living in retirement in Rapid City, S.D., Redlin was in the U.S. House in 1965 when Medicare was established.

In a precursor to this year's impassioned debate over health care reform, such conservative luminaries as Ronald Reagan opposed Medicare as "socialized medicine," he remembers.

"But how wonderful is it that we can look forward to our old age without the possibility that a major illness can wipe out our retirement years?" Redlin asked.

"I happen to be one who has benefited from it tremendously," he said.

In a telephone interview this week, he said he's been paying attention as the fight escalates over how to reform the nation's health care and health insurance system.

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"I think the president is on the right track," he said. "There are some serious problems facing us, and it worries me no end that our health care system seems to operate more on a profit motive than on a healing motive. You have to be mindful of both concerns, of course. But I hope we can implement these reforms so we can move on."

Socialism?

Medicare, a federal government program providing health insurance coverage primarily to people 65 or older, operates as a single-payer health care system.

The 1950 Census showed that the country's aged population had grown from 3 million in 1900 to 12 million in 1950. Two-thirds of older Americans had annual incomes of less than $1,000, and just one in eight had health insurance as private insurers shied away from the illness-prone older population.

Conservatives fought Medicare in 1965, using terms that have become standard in the current fight over reform. George H.W. Bush, a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1964, described Medicare as "socialized medicine," and Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., campaigning for president against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, sneered at the idea.

"Having given our pensioners their medical care," Goldwater said, "why not food baskets, why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?"

Also among the plan's opponents: the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association.

But the Senate passed the landmark legislation by a vote of 70-24 (13 Republicans voting yes, 17 no). In the House, 70 Republicans joined 237 Democrats to pass it, 307-116.

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Medicare was signed into law on July 30, 1965, by President Johnson, who immediately enrolled former President Harry S. Truman as Medicare's first beneficiary and handed him the first Medicare card. Truman had called for a national system of health insurance in the early 1950s, but his proposals, too, were defeated as "socialistic."

In the first three years of the new program, nearly 20 million people enrolled.

'Polarization'

Redlin said he has been disappointed by "the atmosphere of polarization and character attacks that exists now in Washington, an atmosphere that is beneath the code of democracy."

Such harsh language "would not have happened in the two years when I was there," he said.

"I'm impressed with President Obama, the way he has handled himself through this. And I have great respect for the democratic process. But I'm greatly disappointed in the way it's being handled in Washington."

A farmer from northwestern North Dakota who served in the state Senate from 1959 to 1963, Redlin won election to Congress as a Democrat during the 1964 landslide for President Lyndon Johnson. He represented the western part of the state at a time when North Dakota still qualified for two seats in the House.

He was defeated for re-election by the late Thomas Kleppe, a Republican who went on to serve as head of the Small Business Administration and as Interior secretary under President Gerald Ford.

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Redlin returned to the North Dakota Senate in 1973 and served until his retirement in 2000. He and his wife, Christine, moved to Rapid City, S.D., to be close to a daughter and grandchildren.

(He rents out the family farm 12 miles south of Crosby, N.D., and still likes to brag about it: "We've had nine-straight average-or-better crops.")

Redlin and his wife have traveled extensively since he retired, and he said they were moved by a meeting they and other Americans had years ago with the president of Costa Rica. The small Central American nation had its problems and challenges, the president told his visitors, "but he said they had universal health care, and that has meant a lot to the people."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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