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Of the federal governments two major health programs, Medicare and Medicaid, Medicaid has had by far the rockier history. Medicare has enjoyed fairly broad based support in its goal of covering the elderly and disabled. While there has been controversy over the extent of benefits, the basic coverage of the Medicare program has remained the same since it was it was first enacted, and the federal government has always had primary responsibility for the program.

In contrast, Medicaid has always inspired battles, between the federal government and the states over funding of the program, between conservatives and liberals over what the purpose of the program should be, and between different interest groups whose members argue over how the Medicaid pie should be divided. There have been suggestions from several quarters that Medicaid be ended entirely, either eliminated or turned into something completely different, and these suggestions have increased since welfare reform was passed in 1996.

In part, these controversies stem from the reason Medicaid was originally set up—to enable each state, as far as practicable, to furnish medical assistance to individuals whose income and resources are insufficient to meet the costs of medically necessary services. The goal is simple, but the arguments on how to best accomplish that goal are complex. Although many commentators argue Medicaid has been one of the most successful government programs, in terms of the number of people it has helped, the eventual fate of the program remains to be seen.