Walter P. Reuther on National Healthcare
In the Winter 2012 semester, the Reuther Library worked with students in the Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration program at the Wayne State School of Library and Information Science to produce a series of student-written, guest blog posts.
Alexandra Orchard is an MLIS and Archival Administration Certificate candidate planning to graduate in August 2012. A few of her research interests include digital preservation, local history, technology, and pop culture.
Although current talk of national healthcare may seem new and revolutionary, it is far from the first time this issue has received national attention. Long before last year’s debate on national healthcare, prior to the healthcare discussions posed by Hillary Clinton in the 1990s, concerns over rising costs and the provision of healthcare in the United States generated attention in the late 1960s. At the helm of the movement for national healthcare was UAW President and national labor leader Walter P. Reuther, who was a staunch advocate for the creation of a universal healthcare system in the United States. Indeed, Reuther spearheaded his national healthcare vision through the formation of the Committee for National Health Insurance, of which he was Chairman.
In his role as Chairman, Reuther gave numerous interviews and speeches advocating for the national health insurance cause. One such interview, documented as a booklet, held in the Reuther Library's UAW President's Office: Walter P. Reuther Records, describes Reuther’s vision for national health insurance. When discussing healthcare, Reuther often employed the automobile as a metaphor to help people understand what he considered to be a national crisis. He stated, "when it comes to the organization of health care, we’re traveling in a Model-T vehicle" (Committee, p. 3), underscoring that the private health insurance model was flawed due to its "principal idea…to sell a product" (p. 3). Indeed, Reuther’s vision of healthcare sought to remedy these problems, and he addressed many of the practical concerns still discussed today, including cost and financing, coverage, and benefits provisions.
Although at the time of the interview the specific cost details were still to be determined, financing plans included contributions from "employer-employe [sic] groups, from general revenues and from appropriate government agencies for special population groups" (Committee, p. 4). Reuther envisioned his model "work[ing] in a manner similar to Social Security," because, "if everyone contributes, everyone is eligible for benefits at the lowest possible cost" (p. 4). Benefits included both preventative care and hospitalization, with medical, dental, nursing, and a broad range of other covered services. Additional details of Reuther’s healthcare vision were laid out within this booklet, which was included in the folder given to attendees at the Conference of Interested National Organizations, sponsored by the Committee for National Health Insurance on Tuesday, October 14, 1969.
It was at this conference that Reuther presented his speech, "America’s Challenge: A National System to Organize and finance personal health services to meet the nation’s health needs." While the above cited booklet provided more specific details and talking points about his plan, the speech presented both a broader overview and a call to action. In it, Reuther refers to the healthcare system in the United States as a "non-system," citing "sky-rocketing" costs, and presenting numerous facts and figures in an effort to convince the audience, comprised of "65 national organizations" that "the dimensions of the problem are beyond the capability of any private sector in America." Again he refers to the system as a "Model T," stating that it "is not adequate to meet the health care needs of the space age," and that "we ought to take the old Model T system and put it in a museum where museum pieces reside peacefully in the past." He proposes "a universal health insurance system" as the only true solution to the healthcare quagmire, and requests that the conference attendees work together with the committee to develop the full solution.
Providing insight into Reuther’s thought process are two earlier drafts of this speech, also included in the collection. One draft seems to be a rough, typed copy of the speech. The second appears to be Reuther’s initial, handwritten speech outline and notes. Written on the back of hotel stationery, key statements in the final speech such as "the cost of health care is skyrocketing" and "we want a system that can eliminate the waste and inefficiencies," are found. Reuther also lists specific issues such as "infant mortality" and "maternal mortality rates" in this draft copy, revealing his initial inclinations and speech writing process.
In addition to these documents found in the UAW President's Office: Walter P. Reuther Records, the Reuther Library has several other collections that illuminate Reuther’s opinions on healthcare, as well as the healthcare cause in general. These related collections include the Douglas A. Fraser Papers, UAW President’s Office: Leonard Woodcock Records, UAW Special Projects Department Records, UAW Research Department Records, and Committee for National Health Insurance Records. Reviewing this content not only reveals Reuther’s healthcare opinions, but also gives historical context for the present healthcare conversation.
Committee for National Health Insurance. (ca. 1969). National health insurance: What it is, what it does, what it would mean for America. [Informational booklet featuring an interview with Walter P. Reuther regarding National Health Insurance ]. UAW President’s Office: Walter P. Reuther Records (Box 562, Folder 2). Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Detroit, MI.
Reuther, W. P. (1969, October 14). America's Challenge: A National System to Organize and finance personal health services to meet the nation's health needs. [Final copy of speech given to the Conference of Interested Organizations]. UAW President’s Office: Walter P. Reuther Records (Box 562, Folder 1). Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Detroit, MI.
Reuther, W. P. ([10-14-69]). America's Challenge: A National System to Organize and finance personal health services to meet the nation's health needs. [Draft copy of speech given to the Conference of Interested Organizations]. UAW President’s Office: Walter P. Reuther Records (Box 562, Folder 1). Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Detroit, MI.