"He has worked tirelessly to ensure that every American has access to quality and affordable health care, and has succeeded in doing so for countless children, seniors, and Americans with disabilities," the awards citation read, "He has called health care reform the 'cause of his life,' and has championed nearly every health care bill enacted by Congress over the course of the last five decades."
While his illness has sidelined Kennedy from taking an active role in shaping a senate health care bill on the committee, colleagues say the Democrat's presence is there in spirit, and sometimes in writing – the senator wrote a July 18 op-ed for Newsweek that argued for universal health care, entitled "The Cause of My Life."
Known as the "Lion of the Senate," his presence is missed on both sides of the aisle in a health care reform debate that has become largely partisan. When his committee approved a health care bill in July on party lines, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican colleague from Utah and a close friend of Kennedy's lamented, "It is a very one-sided, very liberal bill...I know that Ted would not have done that had he been able to be here."
First elected in 1962, Kennedy has served in the United States Senate for forty-six years.
Obama presented the medals today for the first time in his presidency. Other recipients of the award include physicist Stephen Hawking, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the late congressman and housing secretary Jack Kemp, antiapartheid leader Desmond Tutu, tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King, civil rights leader Joseph Lowery, the late gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk, Race for the Cure founder Nancy Brinker, and actors Sidney Poitier and Chita Rivera.