Medicare enrollees express their gratitude on the program’s 50th anniversary; leaders call for expanded health care rights

Last modified: Saturday, August 01, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — Former city Mayor Mary Lavo Ford cannot recall ever having to worry that, if she or her husband were to be hit with a large medical bill, their children would have to absorb the costs.

This is because Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people who are 65 or older or have certain disabilities, passed while she was in college.

“We take it for granted,” said Ford, 70.

Ford was one of dozens of individuals from around the Valley who turned out Thursday afternoon on the steps of City Hall to celebrate Medicare’s 50th birthday, or the anniversary of the day President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the program into law on July 30, 1965.

“You know it’s there, so you don’t hesitate to go for help when you need it,” said Carolin Dempsey, 86, of South Hadley.

As well as in Northampton, the Western Massachusetts Medicare Birthday Party Coalition marked the event with celebrations in Springfield, Holyoke, Pittsfield and Greenfield. At each gathering, local officials, health care experts and labor representatives gave short speeches and the Super PACs band and the Raging Grannies, who sing political songs while dressed in garish clothing to parody stereotypes of old ladies, gave performances, including a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

Cleo Gorman, 76, of Northampton, a member of the Raging Grannies, said Medicare allows her to have physical therapy as well as regular medication to treat osteoporosis. She said she is grateful not only that she has this care available, but that it is good for her conscience to know that most people are able to have the same help if they need it.

“Thank God — never mind thank goodness — thank God I have that benefit,” she said.

She noted that many people do not believe that at her age, she recently rode her bicycle 93 miles in Belgium and Holland.

Speakers at City Hall included Mayor David J. Narkewicz, who issued a proclamation to mark the occasion, and City Councilor Ryan O’Donnell, who noted that health care is still not available to all who need it.

“It’s all of our jobs to not just celebrate Medicare as a program but to do what we can to change the rules of our country to expand and facilitate that political will,” he said. “I look forward to coming back here in the future and celebrating even greater victories with you as we continue that pursuit of justice and continue to expand health care to every single last person who needs it in our country and our commonwealth.”

This sentiment was echoed by speakers who followed, including Patricia Shaughnessy, director of the Northampton Senior Center, Gail Bean of the Massachusetts Nursing Association and Cooley Dickinson Hospital President and CEO Joanne Marqusee.

Marqusee noted that many Americans are not covered because of their immigration status, and others cannot get all of the care that they seek.

“This is a reminder that health care is different. It is not a commodity to be offered only to those with the means to afford it. It is the right in any decent society,” she said.

Mouth Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella reminded everyone that Frances Perkins — an alumna of the women’s college in South Hadley and the nation’s longest-serving secretary of labor — was a force behind the movement for Social Security, Medicare and other initiatives meant to promote equality.

Pasquerella, a medical ethicist, also said she is pleased with a proposal by federal health officials to pay doctors to have conversations about end-of-life care with their patients.

“We know that there’s a growing economic segregation in our country,” she said. “We need to protect the rights of those who are the most marginalized, disenfranchised members of our society, and particularly those who are facing the most fundamental questions of human existence and grappling with issues of life and death.”

Other speakers at the Northampton event were Jackie Wolf of the League of Women Voters, who is also chairwoman of the Birthday Party Coalition; Osa Flory, also of the League of Women Voters; Cheryl Zoll, CEO of Tapestry Health; Janet Shaw, director of independent living services for the Stavros Center for Independent Living; Ron Patenaude, president of the Hampshire/Franklin Central Labor Council; and Alice Swift, who represented both the League of Women Voters and Progressive Democrats of America.

Keith Barnicle, district representative for U.S. Rep. James McGovern, read a statement from the congressman in support of Medicare and promising to further efforts to expand health coverage.

“No one should be forced into poverty because of health care costs,” Barnicle read from McGovern’s statement.

Other political leaders who provided statements of support were U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren.

“I will do everything I can in Washington to protect Medicare,” Warren said in her statement. “But I’m counting on you to make your voices heard.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at


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