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For more than four decades, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was the Senates leading advocate for universal health care. Kennedy gave his first speech calling for universal care in 1969. A year later, he introduced his first national health insurance bill.
We must begin to move now to establish a comprehensive national health insurance program, capable of bringing the same amount and high quality of health care to every man, woman and child in the United States, he said.
In 1974, Kennedy and House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.) introduced a national health insurance plan. Kennedy also worked behind the scenes with President Richard Nixon on health care. He soon recognized he would have to give up his goal of a single-payer system in order to pass universal health care. The Nixon-Kennedy plan never came together, something that Kennedy later said was a missed opportunity. By 1980, Kennedy found himself at odds with his own party over how to implement a national health insurance plan, prompting his unsuccessful primary challenge to President Jimmy Carter.
As chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, Kennedy advanced a bill similar to the one proposed by President Bill Clinton in late 1993, but the debate ultimately collapsed. In 1996, Kennedy and then-Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R-Kan.) passed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, ensuring the transferability of health coverage between jobs. A year later, Kennedy and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) sponsored the State Childrens Health Insurance Program, providing quality health care to children in low-income families.
In July, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was the first to pass a comprehensive health care reform bill. Kennedy, who was chairman of the panel, had been diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2008 and died Aug. 25. Although Kennedy was largely absent from the Senate as the committee worked on the bill, aides said he played a big role in writing it.
Kennedy also made his mark on other significant health initiatives:
War on Cancer: Kennedy in 1971 succeeded in increasing funding for cancer research and prevention with the National Cancer Act.
Ryan White CARE Act: Kennedy and Hatch helped to establish aid for cities and states affected by the AIDS epidemic with legislation enacted in 1990. Congress has since expanded the program, which is up for reauthorization this year.
Family and Medical Leave Act: Kennedy led the effort in 1993 to help employees take protected unpaid leave due to medical issues affecting themselves or a family member or to care for a new child.
Mental Health Parity: In 2008, Kennedy and then-Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) passed legislation requiring insurance companies to provide coverage for mental illness on par with coverage for physical health conditions.