Frist brings support for drug companies to majority leader job

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Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist‘s official ascension Monday to Senate majority leader could end up helping drug companies.

Frist is author of a bill to protect vaccine makers from lawsuits over vaccine preservatives.

Frist maintains he is not the lawmaker who slipped that provision in a homeland security bill that passed in November. But as the new Senate leader he will be responsible for renegotiating it as several Republican lawmakers unhappy with its inclusion in the bill have requested.

Two senators who objected to the provision said Monday that they expect Frist to honor the promise of outgoing Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., to modify the liability protection as soon as Congress returns.

“I don’t expect any change with respect to this commitment, and I will be working to ensure it is carried out when Congress reconvenes in January,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Frist “has not given us any indication to think otherwise.”

Frist’s spokesman said the senator already has begun talking with Snowe, Collins and others about changes. But Frist still is hoping to pass separately his original bill, which included the liability protection and other measures aimed at securing a sufficient supply of vaccines, according to spokesman Nick Smith.

The provision would stop pending and future lawsuits against vaccine makers from families who believe their children were harmed by the mercury-based preservative thimerosal. Some people believe thimerosal can cause the debilitating neurological condition of autism.

To be on the safe side, the Food and Drug Administration asked manufacturers in 1999 to take thimerosal out of their vaccines. Research has not proven thimerosal causes autism.

Eli Lilly and Co., the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant, created thimerosal and is viewed as the primary beneficiary of the legislation. Although Frist consulted Lilly and other interested parties when writing his bill, his spokesman said the provisions came from an advisory commission that makes recommendations on federal vaccine policy.

In addition to the vaccine legislation, Lilly has other ties to Frist, the Senate’s only physician.

Lilly boosted the sales of Frist’s book on bioterrorism published after Sept. 11, 2001, by buying 5,000 copies and distributing them to doctors around the country.

Frist’s spokesman said Lilly’s promotion of the book did not affect the company’s relationship with the senator.

“All of the book sales were handled by the publisher,” Smith said. “I don’t know that Senator Frist knew who was buying how many copies at what time.”

As the head of the political committee to elect Republican senators, Frist was heavily involved in fund raising and Lilly has been a top Republican donor.

Of the at least $1.68 million the company and its employees gave in federal campaign contributions for this year’s elections, $226,250 went to the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee that Frist had led. That’s about $100,000 more than Eli Lilly contributed to the Democratic counterpart group.

The entire pharmaceutical and health products industry was the largest corporate contributor to the NRSC, giving nearly $4 million, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said the liability protection is the drug companies’ “first payback” for its heavy campaign contributions.

“Unfortunately for the public, Senator Bill Frist typifies the GOP government’s new health care strategy: Care most about the health of corporations that elect you,” Court said.

Consumer Watchdog
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