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John Dingell had a hand in passing Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare — and still strived for more

Nobody told the difficult, extraordinary story of health care reform better than John Dingell.

Rep. John Dingell, who died at age 92 on Thursday, celebrates the 50th anniversary of Medicare’s passage in 2015 with the gavel he used to preside over that historic vote.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

No member of Congress saw more history than John Dingell, the longest-serving United States Representative in history, who died Thursday at age 92.

On health care especially, something of an ancestral calling for the Michigan Congress member, he oversaw remarkable progress.

First elected in 1955, Dingell wielded the gavel in 1965 when Congress passed Medicare into law, guaranteeing health insurance as a right to every American citizen over age 65. He voted for Medicaid and later the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

He watched key health reform efforts, like those championed by the Clintons in the 1990s, fail — and lost his prized chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee shortly afterward. But his career closed with a victory: When President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, Dingell sat at his side.

All told, Dingell played a role in the creation of three major government health care programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act. Taken together, those three programs now cover about 40 percent of the American population.

For the Michigan Congress member, national health insurance was a family matter: Every year, he would reintroduce a bill first proposed by his father during World War Il for a single-payer health care program.

Dingell traced that remarkable history in a string of tweets — his Twitter account was the frequent source of amusement among the Washington press corps — while Republicans debated in 2017 whether to repeal the most recent Democratic health care law.

But even Dingell never realized the full completion of the progressive health care reform project and the truly universal health care system he strived for over many decades in the Capitol.

For all his remarkable accomplishments, as Dingell was painfully aware, the dream is still not fully realized. Millions of Americans live without health insurance. Even for those who have it, medical care is often unaffordable. The United States spends more money on health care than any other developed country, and yet deep inequities persist.

We are living in a time of new optimism that America might actually pass single-payer health care, or something very close to it. Dingell’s wife Debbie, who succeeded him in Congress when Dingell retired in 2015, has co-sponsored the House’s most recent Medicare-for-all bill, now a litmus test for any aspiring Democrat who seeks the White House in 2020. The party caught up to the Dingell family 75 years after John’s father first introduced his single-payer bill.

John Dingell’s work has ended, and he will soon be laid to rest at the Arlington National Cemetery. But the work he gave so much of his life to goes on.

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