Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON — A California-based consumer group asked a Senate panel Tuesday to bar Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from participating in the current debate over medical malpractice reform because of his ties to the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain.
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said HCA, Inc., the Nashville-based hospital chain founded by Frist’s father and older brother, and its malpractice insurance subsidiary would benefit financially from Frist-backed legislation to limit liability to $250,000 for trauma centers, gynecologists and obstetricians.
As a result, the Republican leader from Tennessee also would gain, according to the nonprofit education and advocacy organization. It noted that Frist has previously disclosed transferring from $ 10.1 million to $ 30.3 million in HCA stock owned by him, his wife and children into blind trusts.
While acknowledging that the Senate ethics committee already has addressed the conflict of interest question, the consumer rights group called for another investigation and urged the panel to prohibit Frist from engaging in any legislative action on malpractice.
“Senator Frist’s current involvement in the medical malpractice debate rises beyond the level of general concern for health issues to specific advocacy for his family’s company,” Carmen Balber, the group’s consumer advocate, said in the April 6 letter to the ethics committee.
Because of Senate confidentiality rules, the ethics committee would neither confirm nor deny receipt of the letter seeking the probe. Frist has said the ethics panel has twice cleared him of any potential conflict on legislation related to medical and health issues.
The complaint comes as the Senate tries again Wednesday to bring up a medical malpractice reform bill. Previous attempts to consider the Frist-backed legislation have died.
Since being elected to the Senate in 1994, Frist, the Senate’s only physician, has been at the forefront of debates on health policy issues, including Medicare reform, providing prescription drug benefits for seniors and malpractice liability.
The senator’s high-profile role has drawn sharp criticism from opponents who contend that the positions he has taken on these issues favor hospitals, big corporations and drug companies.
Tuesday’s complaint provided fresh ammunition for Democrats.
“There is nothing more shameless than ignoring the suffering of others for political and financial gain,” said Cara Morris, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The senator of Big Health Care has turned against the victims of medical malpractice to line his pockets and the pockets of his friends and family.”
Nick Smith, a spokesman for Frist, called the attack politically motivated. Smith also pointed out that Frist has never worked for nor served on the board of directors of HCA. The senator has also never worked as a doctor at any HCA hospitals, Smith added.
“This is nothing but politics,” Smith said. “It appears Democrats are more focused on politics than on debating the true merits of policy.”
While Senate rules prohibit senators from pushing legislation in which they have a financial interest, the ban does not apply if the legislation has a broad, general impact on the state or nation.
Frist and Republican supporters contend that medical malpractice lawsuits are driving up the cost of insurance for doctors, causing many to abandon their practices, creating a gap in access to care across the country.
“When it comes to liability issues, Senator Frist’s primary interest is in patient access to quality health care,” Smith said.
Balber said her organization decided to call for a new investigation after Frist ignored requests that he stay out of the debate. She said Frist has an obligation to step aside “to give voters confidence that a vote is going through without any personal interest involved.”