A prime mover behind U.S. entitlement programs died this week at the age of 93. Robert Ball was commissioner of Social Security under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He's credited with designing the Medicare program. NPR's Joanne Silberner has this appreciation.

JOANNE SILBERNER: Years ago I was working on a story about how President Johnson used the Medicare program to desegregate American hospitals. I knew Bob Ball had been involved. When I called him, he gave me the names of five other people.

Each and every one sent me back to Bob. He was the one who had masterminded hospital desegregation. He just wanted other people to get credit. Bob Ball knew how to inspire people and he was extraordinarily clever and adept. He worked his way up from an entry level position with Social Security in 1939 to running the agency in 1962.

One of his achievements - people now on Social Security get annual cost-of-living raises. Bob Ball was also the chief architect of Medicare and he designed it so carefully and positively that in 1965 when it got started 90 percent of the people eligible for Medicare had the confidence to sign on.

In an interview when Ball was 89, NPR's Scott Simon asked him how he was feeling.

Mr. ROBERT BALL (Social Security Commissioner): Oh, fine. As long as I feel as good as I am and can have fun as well as make some kind of a contribution, I'll live as long as - as I can.

SILBERNER: Ball never stopped working. John Rother is head of policy at AARP.

Mr. JOHN ROTHER (AARP): Even after he retired, he was the leading thinker and advocate and was extremely important in the Social Security amendments of 1983 and the debate around Social Security privatization, more so than any other single person.

SILBERNER: Rother says Ball wore people down by being reasonable, agreeable and very well prepared, even when things were happening in Washington and Ball was at his beloved summer home in New Hampshire.

Mr. ROTHER: What he would do is he'd take his cell phone and his fax machine and something for emails out on the end of a dock that went into the water. And he'd have a lounge chair and he was in his bathing suit in the sun, you know, this beautiful, pristine environment. And he'd be talking to reporters and Congressional staff and members of Congress orchestrating everything - from his summer home in New Hampshire.

SILBERNER: Ball dreamed of a national health insurance program. He never achieved that. But he told NPR two-and-a-half years ago that he was proud of the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled.

Mr. BALL: I must say that it has been all I ever expected it to be and more. It's just been a very, very successful program, partly I think responsible for extending the lives of people over 65. But even more important is to make those lives quality lives.

SILBERNER: Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.

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