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Senator Kennedy Speaks on Health Care Reform

One of the most important developments in the health care debate during the Congressional recess was the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on Aug. 25.
Kennedy first called for national health insurance for all Americans during a speech in 1969, and he fought for that goal for the rest of his life.
Here are some excerpts from speeches Kennedy gave through the years on health care.

Dec. 9, 1978
Democratic National Committee Midterm Convention
Memphis, Tenn.

National health insurance is the great unfinished business on the agenda of the Democratic Party. Our party gave Social Security to the nation in the 1930s. We gave Medicare to the nation in the 1960s. And we can bring national health insurance to the nation in the 1970s.

One of the saddest ironies in the worldwide movement for social justice in the 20th century is that America now stands virtually alone in the international community on national health insurance. It seems that every nation is out of step but Uncle Sam. With the sole exception of South Africa, no other industrial nation in the world leaves its citizens in fear of financial ruin because of illness.

A generation after Franklin Roosevelt set the noble goals of freedom from want and freedom from fear, large numbers of Americans are deprived of decent health care and are fearful of the bills they may be forced to pay.

For a very few, for whom the need is least, we have already made a start on national health insurance.

We’ve got national health insurance for the rich, who deduct the cost of major illness on their income tax returns. And the richer you are, the higher the percentage of your health bill you can charge to the IRS.

We’ve got national health insurance for Members of the Senate and House of Representatives. They give their speeches and cast their votes in Congress. And then they go out to Walter Reed Army Hospital or Bethesda Naval Hospital for the free medical and dental care that Uncle Sam provides.

That isn’t fair. If national health insurance is good enough for the wealthy and good enough for Congress, then it is good enough for every American citizen in every city, town and village and on every farm throughout this land.

There are some who say we cannot afford national health insurance. They say it has become an early casualty of the war against inflation. But the truth is, we cannot afford not to have national health insurance.

Health care in 1978 has become the fastest-growing failing business in America. Costs are out of control. If we do nothing, if all we do is drift with the present system, the cost of health care in America will climb from $175 billion this year to $250 billion in 1981.

The rising cost of health is not just a crisis that afflicts the poor and helpless. It has hit the suburbs, too. Millions of middle income citizens face the Hobson’s choice of cutting back on health or other family needs. …

Only through national health insurance can we achieve the effective controls on costs that will bring inflation down and bring adequate health care within financial reach of every citizen.

More than most Americans, I know what it means to have serious illness in the family. My father was crippled by a stroke and required constant care for years. My son was stricken by cancer and is well today because of the miracle of American medicine. A decade ago, I myself was hospitalized for several months, my back broken in many places.

Fortunately, our family could afford to pay for all the care we needed. And so the tragedy of serious illness for those we loved was not compounded by the additional tragedy of a heavy financial burden.

Together, we can lift that financial burden from all the families of America. Through national health insurance, we can provide a decent health care system for the benefit of the people of this land. We can make health care a basic right for all, not just an expensive privilege for the few.

But to achieve the reform, we need, we must have genuine leadership by the Democratic Party. We are heirs of a great tradition in American public life. Our party took up the cause of jobs for the unemployed in the Great Depression. Our party took up the cause of civil rights for black and brown Americans and the cause of equal rights for women in America and the people of the District of Columbia.

In that same tradition of leadership, it is time for the Democratic Party now to take up the cause of health.

If we care about our party, if we care about the future of our nation, let us honor the commitment of our platform. Let us pledge in Memphis, at this convention of our party, to make health care a right for all our people now.

Aug. 12, 1980
Democratic National Convention
New York

I will continue to stand for a national health insurance. We must — we must not surrender — we must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge and let us resolve that the state of a family’s health shall never depend on the size of a family’s wealth.

The president, the vice president, the Members of Congress have a medical plan that meets their needs in full, and whenever Senators and Representatives catch a little cold, the Capitol physician will see them immediately, treat them promptly, fill a prescription on the spot. We do not get a bill even if we ask for it, and when do you think was the last time a Member of Congress asked for a bill from the federal government? And I say again, as I have before, if health insurance is good enough for the president, the vice president, the Congress of the United States, then it’s good enough for you and every family in America.

Sept. 7, 1989
Senate floor

The Americans with Disabilities Act will end the American apartheid. The act has the potential to become one of the great civil rights laws of our generation. Disabled citizens deserve the opportunity to work for a living, ride a bus, have access to public and commercial buildings, and do all the other things that the rest of us take for granted. Mindless physical barriers and outdated social attitudes have made them second class citizens for too long. This legislation is a bill of rights for the disabled, and America will be a better and fairer nation because of it.

April 28, 2002
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

I believe that the most enduring legacy of the Sept. 11 attacks is a new sense of community among all Americans. Four hundred years ago, the poet John Donne wrote that ‘No man is an island.’ Today, our country reaffirms the truth of those words. We understand that if one of us is hurting, all of us hurt.

This renewed national spirit leads us to reaffirm the basic social bond that unites us all. Every American should have the opportunity to receive a quality education, a job that respects their dignity and protects their safety, and health care that does not condemn those whose health is impaired to a lifetime of poverty and lost opportunity.

Nowhere are the challenges our nation faces greater than in health care. Charles Dickens opens his novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ with the classic lines, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. …’ Dickens was characterizing France and England at the end of the 18th century, but his words apply equally well to health care in America at the beginning of the 21st century. …

One in six citizens lacks health insurance coverage, and millions more are under-insured. Patients in HMOs and other managed care plans lack basic protections to ensure that they receive the best and most effective treatment for their illnesses. Millions of patients around the nation look to Congress for help in receiving the health care that will save or improve their lives, and we owe them that help.

It will be no surprise to this audience that I believe securing quality, affordable health insurance for every American is a matter of simple justice. Health care is not just another commodity. Good health is not a gift to be rationed based on ability to pay. The time is long overdue for America to join the rest of the industrialized world in recognizing this fundamental need.

Children should not be denied the opportunity for a healthy start in life because their parents cannot afford insurance. Families should not have to worry about paying medical bills at the same time they are struggling to cope with all the other strains that serious illness brings.

Older couples should not see the savings of a lifetime swept away by a tidal wave of medical debt. And no Americans should find that the quality of their medical care is determined by the quantity of their wealth.

But that fundamental wrong occurs every day in America, over, and over, and over again. …

The American people have shown that they are ready for great missions that meet the demands of this new age. They are the creators of the new spirit of Sept. 11. Now, we in public life must match the standards that the people have set. We must strive to do what is best — and we must measure our success by what we accomplish not just for one political party or another, not for this or that interest group, but for America and its enduring ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Aug. 25, 2008
Democratic National Convention

For me this is a season of hope — new hope for a justice and fair prosperity for the many, and not just for the few — new hope.

And this is the cause of my life — new hope that we will break the old gridlock and guarantee that every American — north, south, east, west, young, old — will have decent, quality health care as a fundamental right and not a privilege.

We can meet these challenges with Barack Obama. Yes, we can, and finally, yes, we will.

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