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From one presidency to the next, the American healthcare system has undergone constant reform. Here’s a collection of U.S. presidents’ healthcare quotes throughout history.
From Clintoncare and Obamacare to the discussions around 2017’s Senate healthcare bill, the American healthcare system has undergone several changes throughout the history of the United States itself. In 1854, under the presidency of Franklin Pierce, the country saw one of our earliest health reform debates – that time, surrounding the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane, which would have set up asylums for the indigent insane, the blind, and the deaf. In 1965, both Medicare and Medicaid were established as two programs under Social Security by President Lyndon B. Johnson. And, currently, under President Donald Trump, the United States is once again going through another period of healthcare reform.
In honor of President’s Day, we’ve gone through the annals of history and found healthcare quotes from all 45 U.S. presidents. Okay, we couldn’t find quotes for ALL the U.S. presidents, but for those we couldn’t find, we included details on some of their opinions and/or actions around health or healthcare reform, or just found details relevant health or healthcare.
1. George Washington
“Let your heart feel for the afflictions and distress of everyone, and let your hand give in proportion to your purse.”
2. John Adams
Adams signed July 16, 1798, Adams signed “an Act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen.” The act mandated that 20 cents/month from the seamen’s paycheck go towards covering medical bills. In many respects, this was the first major piece of US healthcare legislation.
3. Thomas Jefferson
“If people let the government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”
4. James Madison
James Madison signed the Vaccine Act of 1813. The act encouraged the use of the smallpox vaccination developed 17 years earlier. This was the first federal law dealing with consumer protection and therapeutic substances.
5. James Monroe
Monroe developed a chronic lung illness in late 1830. In April 1831 he wrote: “My state of health continues, consisting of a cough which annoys me night and day accompanied by considerable expectoration.” No specific diagnosis was made, although his doctor recommended a rest at a tuberculosis hospital.
6. John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams’s most significant contribution to the history of healthcare in the United States has to do with the work he did for the US science community as a whole. Adams helped establish the foundation for the Smithsonian Institute. This illustrated the important role the federal government had to play in encouraging scientific research.
7. Andrew Jackson
In 1845, Andrew Jackson suffered with what then was called “dropsy,” the accumulation of excess water. Old Hickory wrote: “It may be that my life ends in dropsy, all means hitherto used to stay the swelling has now failed to check it …. I am a blubber of water.”
8. Martin Van Buren
In an 1840 President Martin Van Buren addressed a joint session of Congress and asked for their help in his endeavor to help grow the US Marines hospital services:
“The sites for marine hospitals on the rivers and lakes which I was authorized to select and cause to be purchased have all been designated…It is for Congress to decide whether these Conditional purchases shall be sanctioned and the humane intentions of the law carried into full effect.”
9. William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison briefly attended a boys’ academy in Southampton County, Virginia, before moving to Philadelphia to receive medical training in 1790. At medical school, Harrison studied under the tutelage of Doctor Benjamin Rush. After realizing he didn’t care for the subject, he abandoned medical school in favor of a military career.
10. John Tyler
In 1841, Yellow Fever and other illnesses were spreading across the United States. President John Tyler addressed these issues in his State of the Union speech that year.
“Although disease has visited some few portions of the land with distress and mortality, yet in general the health of the people has been preserved, and we are all called upon by the highest obligations of duty to renew our thanks and our devotion to our Heavenly Parent.”
11. James K. Polk
James K. Polk had numerous ailments. An operation for urinary stones as a teenager is likely to have left him sterile or impotent, and may explain why he did not have children, according to John Seigenthaler, one of his biographers. Because he died of cholera, Polk received a quick burial in a city cemetery for sanitary reasons. Drama continues to the ultimate location of his grave.
12. Zachary Taylor
It was July 4th, 1850 when Zachary Taylor consumed ate raw fruit and drank iced milk at a fundraising event near the Washington Monument. He later became ill and died. The reasons for his mysterious death remain unclear until today but his heavy tobacco-chewing and whiskey-drinking could not have helped. When Taylor’s name was first suggested as a candidate for president he responded:
“Stop your nonsense and drink your whiskey!”
13. Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore was the first president who was a health nut. He did not smoke or drink, and was fastidious about measures he believed could affect his physical well-being. For example, one hot summer night in Washington, legend has it that he left the White House to sleep in the cooler and breezier part of Washington known as Georgetown; he correctly associated risk of contracting malaria with hot, humid weather.
14. Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce was a strict constitutionalist. In his own words, he did not see “any authority in the Constitution for public charity.” This attitude manifested itself most clearly in 1854 when he vetoed the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane. The bill would have provided for the establishment of asylums for the mentally ill.
15. James Buchanan
James Buchanan, the only American president who never married, had his niece, Harriett Lane, fulfill the duties as White House hostess and First Lady. After leaving the White House, Harriett Lane endowed a home for invalid children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. To this day, pediatric clinics at Hopkins are called the “Harriet Lane” clinics and the standard textbook used by pediatrics residents is called the Harriett Lane Handbook.
16. Abraham Lincoln
In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Lincoln founded the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and appointed a chemist, Charles M. Wetherill, to lead the USDA’s Division of Chemistry, which would eventually be absorbed into the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
17. Andrew Johnson
“If I am shot at, I want no man to be in the way of the bullet.”
18. Ulysses S. Grant
Grant appointed John Maynard Woodworth to become the United States’ first ever Surgeon General. Woodworth would later advocated for the creation of the National Board of Health in 1879.
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
“The filth and noise of the crowded streets soon destroy the elasticity of health which belongs to the country boy.”
20. James Garfield
James Garfield was shot in an assassination attempt in July 1881 but didn’t fall victim to his injuries until August. Many historians believe it was the use of non-sterilized medical instruments on Garfield that led to his death and that he would have survived with today’s modern medical practices.
21. Chester A. Arthur
“The health of the people is of supreme importance. All measures looking to their protection against the spread of contagious diseases and to the increase of our sanitary knowledge for such purposes deserve attention of Congress.”
22 & 24. Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland vetoed the Dependent and Disability Pension Act of 1887 that would have provided pension benefits for veterans with disabilities. His veto might have led to his loss in the 1888 election as Benjamin Harrison supported the law and passed it in 1890.
In 1893, while the country was in the middle of an economic depression, Cleveland developed a tumor. He then had a secret surgery on yacht to have it removed so that it would not cause a widespread panic. The doctors made sure to remove it via his mouth so as not to damage his iconic mustache.
23. Benjamin Harrison
“Will it not be wise to allow the friendship between nations to rest upon deep and permanent things? Irritations of the cuticle must not be confounded with heart failure.”
25. William McKinley
During McKinley’s presidency, the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico, the Philippines, the island of Guam, and Spain relinquished its claims to Cuba. Cuba came under temporary American occupation, which gave Army doctors under Walter Reed the opportunity to implement major medical reforms, including attempts to eliminate yellow fever.
26. Theodore Roosevelt
Roosevelt passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act which raised US food inspection standards. He included a proposal for universal healthcare in his 1912 Progressive Party Platform but lost his election. His feelings on health care can best be understood with this quote:
“The health and vitality of our people are at least as well worth conserving as their forests, waters, lands, and minerals, and in this great work the national government must bear a most important part.”
27. William Howard Taft
President Taft was one of the first public figures in U.S. history to be defined in popular culture by his pathologic obesity. During his adult life, Taft attempted to stick to a weight-loss program that researchers have found to be startlingly contemporary. In 1905, Taft, then 48-years-old, hired Dr. Nathaniel E. Yorke-Davies, an English diet expert, to supervise his weight-loss plan. He spent the remaining 25 years of his life corresponding with the doctor and consulting other physicians, determined to control his weight. In many ways, Taft received the sort of medical care which doctors now wish they could provide. He was in constant touch with his doctor over a period of many years.
28. Woodrow Wilson
In 1814 Wilson signed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act which regulated and taxed the production, importation, and distribution of opiates and coca products.
29. Warren G. Harding
Harding entered the White House during a serious post-war recession and was particularly concerned with supporting American veterans who had fought in World War I. He organized the Veterans Bureau in 1920 to ensure veterans received medical treatment and job retraining. In 1921 Harding signed the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act, which granted federal funds to states for maternal and child care.
30. Calvin Coolidge
Coolidge would have most likely been opposed to the government playing any role in providing for healthcare for its citizens. He once said:
“Collecting more taxes than is absolutely necessary is legalized robbery…I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government — and more for themselves.”
31. Herbert Hoover
“Public health service should be as fully organized and as universally incorporated into our governmental system as is public education. The returns are a thousand fold in economic benefits, and infinitely more in reduction of suffering and promotion of human happiness.”
32. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR signed into law many important pieces of healthcare legislation, including the Social Securities Act. He once said:
“A comprehensive health program [is] required as an essential link in our national defenses against individual and social insecurity.”
33. Harry S. Truman
In 1945, Truman became the first president to propose national health insurance legislation. Congress rebuffed his request. In 1950, he signed the Social Security Amendments, which provided federal funds to states in order to finance the medical care of poor and infirm Americans. Called “Old-Age Assistance,” this law eventually became the foundation for the Medicaid program.
“Millions of our citizens do not now have a full measure of opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health. Millions do not now have protection or security against the economic effects of sickness. The time has arrived for action to help them attain that opportunity and that protection.”
34. Dwight Eisenhower
Ike clearly opposed the idea of universal healthcare but thought the government could help in reducing rising costs. He explained:
“I am flatly opposed to the socialization of medicine. The great need for hospital and medical services can best be met by the initiative of private plans. But it is unfortunately a fact that medical costs are rising and already impose severe hardships on many families. The Federal Government can do many helpful things and still carefully avoid the socialization of medicine.”
35. John F. Kennedy
In the spring of 1962, President Kennedy launched a bold effort to provide healthcare for the aged—what would later be known as Medicare. His healthcare campaign culminated in a nationally televised speech.
36. Lyndon B Johnson
LBJ signed the Older Americans Act in 1865 which created the Medicare program that is now so ingrained in American Society. When the bill was passed he said:
“I am hopeful, as I know and believe that the Congress is hopeful, that this will permit us to find greater uses for the skills and the wisdom and the experience that is found in the maturity of our older citizens… there will be a real new day for older Americans in this country.”
37. Richard Nixon
In 1974, President Nixon teamed up with an unlikely ally, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, in a bid to require employers to provide health insurance for their workers. Historians believe Nixon’s plan might have been enacted, if its progress had not been interrupted by the Watergate scandal that drove him from office.
“Now, for the first time, we have not just the need but the will to get this job done. There is widespread support in the Congress and in the Nation for some form of comprehensive health insurance.”
38. Gerald Ford
“I propose catastrophic health insurance for everybody covered by Medicare…We cannot realistically afford federally dictated national health insurance providing full coverage for all 215 million Americans. But I do envision the day when we may use the private health insurance system to offer more middle-income families high quality health services at prices they can afford.”
39. Jimmy Carter
Here’s an excerpt from President Carter’s National Health Plan Message to the Congress on Proposed Legislation (June 12, 1979):
“No American should live in fear that a serious illness or accident will mean bankruptcy or a lifetime of debt. Yet today over 80 million Americans are unprotected against devastating medical costs, and millions more can lose the protection they now have because of unemployment or the death of a working spouse.”
40. Ronald Reagan
“One example is Medicare and Medicaid–programs with worthy goals but whose costs have increased from $11 billion to almost $60 billion, more than 5 times as much, in just 10 years. Waste and fraud are serious problems…corruption has permeated virtually every area of the Medicare and Medicaid health care industry.”
41. George H.W. Bush
President George H.W. Bush’s Radio Address to the Nation on Health Care Reform (July 3, 1992):
“Healthcare in our country is too expensive, too complicated. And too many times, the system is downright unfair.”
42. Bill Clinton
“You have the right to know all your medical options, not just the cheapest. You have the right to choose the doctor you want for the care you need. You have the right to emergency room care, wherever and whenever you need it. You have the right to keep your medical records confidential. Traditional care or managed care, every American deserves quality care.”
43. George W. Bush
George W. Bush’s State of the Union address to joint session of Congress (January 20, 2004):
“A government-run health care system is the wrong prescription. By keeping costs under control, expanding access and helping more Americans afford coverage, we will preserve the system of private medicine that makes America’s health care the best in the world.”
44. Barack Obama
Obama passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as ACA or ObamaCare in 2010. He said after signing the bill:
“After a century of striving, after a year of debate, after a historic vote, health care reform is no longer an unmet promise. It is the law of the land.”
45. Donald Trump
In an interview with The Washington Post, President Trump said of his attempts on healthcare reform:
“We’re going to have insurance for everybody[…]There was a philosophy in some circles that if you can’t pay for it, you don’t get it. That’s not going to happen with us.”
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