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Growth through Natural Increase: Deaths, Better Health Care

new antibiotics, Social Security laws, sulfa drugs, commercial health insurance, American Hospital Association

Access to modern medicine also began to equalize with the New Deal. After 1935 the Social Security Administration began to provide medical aid to children, pregnant women, and the disabled. During this time, private, commercial health insurance began to be developed. In 1929 a group of schoolteachers in Dallas, Texas, contracted with a local hospital to provide health coverage for a fixed fee. Shortly thereafter, the American Hospital Association created Blue Cross and Blue Shield to offer health insurance policies for groups. Health maintenance organizations (HMOs) were developed in the 1940s but did not become widespread until the 1980s.

Higher levels of medical care reached millions as people joined the armed forces during World War II. Community health also improved in many rural areas near military bases, as the government modernized water systems and sewage plants, exterminated mosquitoes and other disease-carrying insects, campaigned against sexually transmitted diseases, and provided direct medical attention to civilian workers at the bases.

The federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) was created in 1953. It underwrote the construction of hospitals and clinics and provided funds for medical research. Medicare and Medicaid were added to the Social Security laws in the mid-1960s to offer medical care to the elderly and to the needy. In the 1970s the federal government funded toxic waste cleanups and promoted clean air and water.

Modern antibiotics—including sulfa drugs and penicillin first used during World War II—became available to the American public in the postwar years. These drugs provided the first effective weapons against bacterial infections, and their use transformed medicine in the 1950s. Medical researchers in the 1950s also developed new vaccines, including one against polio. The annual death rate in 1940 (age-adjusted to discount any effect of the postwar baby boom), before the availability of the new antibiotics, was 10.76 percent; by 1960 it was down to 7.6.

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