Attention on Sen. Frist turns to issues, his ties to HCA

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Chattanooga Times/Chattanooga Free Press

WASHINGTON — The likely rise of surgeon-turned-lawmaker Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to the U.S. Senate’s top leadership position could shine a spotlight on national health care issues, observers said.

It may also focus attention on his ties to HCA, the hospital chain founded by his family, observers said.

With Sen. Frist as majority leader, “you now have a spokesman on health issues who is not simply a policy maker but someone with an M.D. behind his name who understands health care from the inside,” said Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals.

Sen. Frist’s likely election to the majority leader post already is raising new questions about his ties to HCA. The chain was founded by his father and is now run by his brother, Thomas Frist.

“It may be more visible than it was,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

Frist spokesman Nick Smith said Saturday evening that the lawmaker remains interested in health care and will carry those issues into the majority leader’s office.

“Sen. Frist’s priorities are modernizing Medicare, working on a prescription drug benefit and addressing the number of the uninsured and how we can lower these numbers,” Mr. Smith said.

Senate Republicans said Friday that they expect to elect Sen. Frist on Monday as the new Republican leader, replacing Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who stepped down under fire as a result of Dec. 5 remarks critics charged were racially insensitive.

Frist supporters have been praising the former heart-and-lung transplant surgeon’s medical background. Sen. Pete Dominici, R-N.M., said, “Sen. Frist has some serious, serious ideas” about issues such as Medicare and prescription drugs.

Yank Coble, president of the American Medical Association, said Sen. Frist has an “extraordinarily broad knowledge” on health and medical issues.

The Global Health Alliance issued a statement that noted Sen. Frist’s overseas medical missions and said he can “play a critical role in helping Congress understand and take action on a wide and complex range of global health issues, particularly the global AIDS pandemic.”

Sen. Frist is also getting criticism over his ties to HCA from two groups, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights and Physicians for a National Health Program.

Last Tuesday, two days before Sen. Frist said he was considering running $631 million to settle fraud claims made by the federal government. The total payments the company $1.7 billion.

The federal action against the company came during a period of time when the company was controlled by nonfamily members and called Columbia/HCA. After thefraud allegations first surfaced in 1997, the officials running the company left, and Thomas Frist returned to run the company at no pay.

Regarding HCA, Mr. Smith said Sen. Frist placed the holdings in a blind trust when he came to the Senate. Those holdings have been estimated to be $25 million, according to Sen. Frist’s past financial disclosures.

“The Senate Ethics Committee ruled that it was not necessary for Sen. Frist to put all his holdings into a blind trust. However Sen. Frist wanted to go the extra mile to ensure there was no conflict of interest,” Mr. Smith said, noting the trust was later changed to an even more restrictive legal entity.

Moreover, Mr. Smith said, the senator “and his brother do not discuss issues related to HCA. Sen. Frist has never been on the board, never been an employee of HCA or any of its hospitals.”

In a statement, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said Sen. Frist “should step aside because he owned and profited from one of America’s worst corporate criminals.”

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported in its Saturday editions that Physicians for a National Health Program said Republicans are “considering a Senate majority leader who made his millions from a family-run company that defrauded Medicare, overstated expense statements, billed for services ineligible for reimbursements and paid kickbacks to physicians to encourage referrals to HCA facilities.”


The Associated Press contributed to this story.

E-mail Andy Sher at [email protected]

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