50 for 50

LIHUE — The numbers seemed a nice fit.

Neva Olson, retired from a career in health care, was one of 50 people who came out to celebrate Medicare’s 50th anniversary Thursday morning at the Moikeha Building in the Lihue Civic Center.

And she, like the others, was pleased the bill that created Medicare was signed into law five decades ago — July 30, 1965. When it was, people in Congress were saying it would be doomed, or worse yet, be the demise of the country, she added, so it was nice to recognize its success.

“I’m so glad the Hawaii Alliance for Retired Americans is doing something to celebrate Medicare,” Olson said of the group that organized the gathering. “I’m happy the bill was signed.”

Medicare is the nation’s largest and most successful health insurance system serving the health needs of more than 53 million older and disabled Americans, states a proclamation issued by Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr.

Prior to Medicare, about 50 percent of seniors lived in poverty. In 2013, half of people with Medicare lived on incomes of less than $23,500 per year; one in four Medicare beneficiaries had less than $11,300 in savings, and the median annual income for women and people of color were significantly lower.

Kealoha Takahashi, director of the county’s Office of Elderly Affairs, said when the bill signed by President Lyndon Johnson created Medicare, an era of health coverage for our most vulnerable Americans began.

“For a half century, Medicare has sought to accomplish two primary goals — ensure access to health care for our nation’s seniors and disabled citizens, and to protect them against financial hardship caused by rising health care costs,” Kealoha quoted U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono in a letter. “Medicare has evolved over the years to provide more people with improved access to affordable, quality health care coverage. These people include more than 11,000 Kauai residents who are eligible to receive Medicare benefits.”

Lori Miller, director of Kauai Hospice, said Medicare initiated hospice care about 35 years ago.

“This provides comfort care for those who have no other options,” Miller said. “About 70 percent of patient revenue comes from Medicare, and the providing for hospice care paved the way for other insurance companies to offer hospice care.”

Kipukai Kualii, representing the Kauai County Council, said Medicare has been a cornerstone of retirement security for the past half century.

“There has been a lot of talk in Washington about cutting Medicare benefits and shifting the costs to seniors,” Kualii said. “These changes would be a disaster for our nation’s current and future retirees. We owe it to future generations to keep the Medicare program strong and healthy.”

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