With future uncertain, Hartford celebrates Medicare’s birthday

Medicare turns 46 Saturday, and on Friday, Hartford Hospital and Aetna commemorated the role of the two city institutions in launching the program, with an event that was part history lesson, part appreciation for the insurance program and, at least for the politicians invited, part opportunity to bash proposals to change Medicare.

Aetna was an administrator of the health insurance program for seniors when it was launched, and issued the first Medicare benefit payment to Hartford Hospital on July 9, 1966. The $331.71 payment covered the majority of inpatient hospital costs for 68-year-old Mary B. Augustus of Hartford, a surgery patient.

"How long was the stay at $331?" Gov. Dannel P. Malloy asked as he posed holding the check with Aetna head of Medicare Gary Thomas and Jeffrey Flaks, who on Monday will become Hartford Hospital's president and CEO. "How many minutes?"

Kidding aside, Malloy praised Medicare and warned that it, along with Medicaid and Social Security, are under attack. Each program covers more than 500,000 people in the state, and Malloy said his parents and other family members had also benefitted from them.

While celebrating the anniversary of Medicare, "we have to be cognizant that there are people who'd like to change this system," Malloy said. "Who would like to balance the budget, quite frankly, disproportionately with respect to affecting these wonderful obligations that we have for 45 years and longer honored as a matter of national policy."

Malloy acknowledged the need to save money and rein in federal spending, but he said there are better ways to do it.

"We have changed lives, we have made lives better, we have saved lives, and yes, we're finding a way to cut our costs," he said. "That's the right road to be on and the road that we celebrate today."

U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, had more pressing matters to attend to in Washington but sent a video message touting the original Medicare check as "another first for the first congressional district." He also accused Republicans in Washington of seeking to dismantle Medicare.

Medicare isn't set to be cut immediately under either plan under consideration in Congress in the ongoing debt ceiling talks. But each plan would set up a committee to develop deeper deficit reduction plans later this year, which would likely look to entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid for savings.

Other proposals to change Medicare have galvanized protest this year, including a plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan that would turn Medicare into a voucher system, and one by Connecticut U.S. Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, an independent, and Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican, that would require wealthier beneficiaries to pay more, raise the enrollment age from 65 to 67 by 2025, and raise premiums and add co-payments for certain services.

While the politicians spoke of the current debates over Medicare during the ceremony on the Hartford Hospital campus Friday, others focused on its history. A black and white photograph hung on the wall showing the original check presentation from 1966, when Robert E. Stewart of Aetna hand-delivered the check to the hospital's P. Whitney Spaulding as two women in wheelchairs looked on.

Flaks said Hartford Hospital's president at the time, T. Stewart Hamilton, was chairman of the American Hospital Association and worked closely with President Lyndon B. Johnson in advocating for Medicare. Johnson signed the law creating Medicare on July 30, 1965.

"This is the point in time that we began insuring the care for the elderly," Flaks said. Today, 40 percent of the hospital's patients are covered by Medicare, a figure that is expected to increase as Baby Boomers turn 65.