This summer marks the 50th anniversary of a monumental change for our country: President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing into law the bill that created Medicare and Medicaid.

While there has been much publicity over the past several months about this milestone for Medicare and its positive impact on the health of the elderly, it's disappointing that there has been less attention paid to Medicaid, which has been providing access to health care for the poor and chronically ill for the same 50 years.

At its outset, the Medicaid program was envisioned as a health care safety net for those most in need. Today, it helps provide economic stability for the working poor – people from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and geographic regions. It also aids our nation's sickest and most vulnerable and impacts our entire health care system, our economy, our work force, and our neighborhoods and communities.

For example, nearly half of all births nationwide are financed through Medicaid. Medicaid provides access to care not only for the child, but also prenatal care for the mother throughout her pregnancy. And research shows that prenatal care leads to more normal birth weight babies and children who survive and thrive. In fact, babies born to mothers who received no prenatal care are three times more likely to be born at low birth weight, and five times more likely to die.

Yet in Medicaid – as in all health care – tremendous opportunity exists to leverage innovation and technology to improve the delivery and quality of care. As the landscape of health care changes, sustaining and strengthening this program will require increased collaboration between the private sector and the public sector, hospitals and insurers, and, most importantly, patients and their doctors.

While Medicaid is administered by states, private companies are also deeply involved.  It is this longstanding public-private collaboration that has allowed the program to innovate and evolve.  For example, AmeriHealth Caritas, an affiliate of Independence Blue Cross, offers Medicaid coverage to 6.8 million people in 16 states and the District of Columbia, and recently partnered with the health care technology company Theranos to make its less invasive and more efficient diagnostic tests available directly to its members. Through initiatives such as this, Medicaid not only fosters important innovations, but also helps to strengthen our entire health care system, although with less public notice than its better-known partner, Medicare.

As we observe the 50th birthday of Medicaid, we should bear in mind the spirit of collaboration, flexibility, and partnership that has made the program successful and that will keep it strong as it looks ahead to the next 50 years.


Have a health care question or frustration? Share your story »