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Medicare expansion riled affluent seniors in 1988

Senior citizens making $35,000 a year or more were outraged at having to pay $800 a year for added protection.

February 27, 2012

President Reagan, the great apostle of modern conservatism, persuaded a Democratic Congress in 1988 to enact the biggest expansion of Medicare since the program's creation in 1965.

For the first time, there would be financial protection against catastrophic illness, with a limit on out-of-pocket payments. To avoid worsening the federal deficit, the expansion would be paid for by the people benefiting from it: the Medicare beneficiaries themselves. Poor people would pay little or nothing, and seniors making $35,000 a year or more would pay $800 a year for this new protection.

An enthusiastic Congress delivered the legislation with huge majorities.

But affluent seniors were outraged.

Here's what happened in Chicago on April 17, 1989, according to the local paper: "Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, one of the most powerful politicians in the United States, was booed and chased down a Chicago street Thursday morning by a group of senior citizens after he refused to talk with them about federal health insurance."

Rostenkowski ran around the block and escaped in his car. "These people don't understand what the government is trying to do for them," he told the Chicago Tribune.

The lessons were clear: People like government benefits, but they don't like to pay for them.

—Bob Rosenblatt

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