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Health care reform has been a contentious political issue in the United States for more than a hundred years. Even after the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which expanded access to health insurance coverage for millions of people, Americans continue to disagree on whether and how to make quality health care available to all.

From the beginning of the 20th century to today, citizens have made their voices heard in these debates. Health care reform is usually associated with presidents and national leaders, but this exhibition tells the lesser-known story of how movements of ordinary people helped shape the changing American health care system.

  • Two White male doctors smile facing viewer amidst a group of demonstrators in a street.

    Physicians rally in support of health reform, New York City, August 29, 2009

    Courtesy Thomas Altfather Good

    For most of the 20th century, the American Medical Association was a powerful and successful opponent of government health care reform, especially proposals for national health insurance. However, not all physicians opposed reforms, and some created their own reform organizations. Many doctors and medical students also worked closely with citizen groups to expand access to quality health care.

  • Multiracial group of protesters in rain, holding signs, protesters in foreground are elderly.

    Senior citizens and supporters protesting high pharmaceutical costs at a Gray Panthers of San Francisco demonstration, 2006

    Courtesy Patricia Jackson

    Sometimes calling themselves patients, sometimes consumers, people in need of medical care have formed the backbone of grassroots health care activism in the United States.

  • Three African American women sit around a desk; two of the women are nurses

    Nurses meeting at the Delta Health Center, a community-controlled clinic in Mound Bayou, MS, 1968

    Courtesy Daniel Bernstein/Jack Geiger

    Minority and low-income Americans have organized to bring quality health care to their communities for over a century. Responding to neglect from government and private providers, community members have created their own public health campaigns, hospitals, clinics, and health centers.