Frist should recuse himself from debate

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Jackson Sun (Jackson, Tennessee)

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist should recuse himself from the current debate over medical malpractice reform. It’s not that we’re questioning the motivations of the Senate’s only physician. But as the most powerful person in the Senate, he has an ethical obligation to remove even the appearance of impropriety.

The case being presented by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights is compelling. Frist’s father and brother founded HCA Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain. HCA’s malpractice insurance subsidiary would benefit financially by a bill being sponsored by the majority leader which would limit liability to $250,000 for trauma centers, gynecologists and obstetricians. And HCA isn’t the only one that stands to benefit from this legislation. Frist and his family own $30.3 million in HCA stock.

This is not to say that Frist should never weigh in on health care issues. The two-term senator from Tennessee has built his career on taking thelead in the fight for health care reform. As the Senate’s only licensed physician, he brings a unique, insider’s knowledge of the issue.

But this is one time when that insider knowledge works against him. We don’t doubt that Frist has only honorable intentions in sponsoring this legislation. But clearly, there is more than a passing appearance of a conflict here. How can Frist argue legitimately that his own family’s extensive holdings in the health care field won’t somehow color his judgment? Realistically, he can’t.

This isn’t, as Frist spokesman Nick Smith argues, a matter of the Democrats playing politics. This is a matter of Frist doing the right thing, the ethical thing. It’s a matter of him placing himself above the partisan fray, of removing any trace of a possibility that he could be accused of using his position for his own, or his family’s, personal gain.

Frist has other ways he can continue to lead the fight for health care reform, and he should. But this is one round that he should sit out.

Consumer Watchdog
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