Frist Will Not Help Health Care’s Ills

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San Diego Union Tribune

This article appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune on December 26th: by Jamie Court and Frank Smith

Capitol Hill’s well-heeled lobbyists and political cognoscente have proclaimed that with a doctor in charge of the U.S. Senate, health-care reform is imminent. Unfortunately for the public, the doctor running the chamber, Sen. Bill Frist, typifies the GOP’s new health-care strategy: care most about the health of corporations that elect you.

If the public does not stop Frist and K Street’s hired guns, the gains of the patients’ rights movement will be erased and the freedoms of drug companies, HMOs and hospital chains will be expanded at the expense of patients.

A heart and lung surgeon, Frist sponsored legislation this year limiting legal liability for drug-maker Eli Lilly and other manufacturers of a mercury-based additive to vaccines that is linked to autism in children.

The provision drew outrage from parents of autistic children as special-interest pandering when it passed as part of the Homeland Security legislation just after the election. The corporate pork was the first payback for pharmaceutical companies’ heavy last-minute financing for key
Republican Senate candidates that changed the balance of power in the Senate. The Washington Post also reported recently that Eli Lilly bought 5,000 all copies of Senator Frist’s recent book.

As head of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign, Frist raised more than $100 million for GOP senators’ election campaigns. It is in this fund-raising role that observers say Frist won his new post. In 2003, the debts to these donors, many from the medical-insurance complex, will come due. As Senate majority leader, Frist will have the power to schedule or not schedule votes on legislation, determine committee assignments and control all debate, absent a super majority against him. (Given these powers, it is little wonder there were few words of criticism about his election even from Senate Democrats.)

Frist’s ownership of and entanglement with one of America’s biggest corporate criminals, hospital chain Columbia/HCA, shows where his loyalty is and should have prevented him from leading the U.S. Senate. In total, the company, now called HCA, will pay more than $1.7 billion in civil and criminal penalties – the largest amount ever in a health-care fraud case.

Frist’s family founded the company, which the government prosecuted for massive billing fraud. USA Today reported that U.S. Senate disclosure statements show he owned as much as $25 million in company stock. His wife has more than $1 million in stock. Frist claims the money is in a blind trust, but when a trust is invested heavily in a company, rather than an industry, it is all too visible. Rep. Pete Stark, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means health subcommittee, recently stated that the government’s HCA settlement may have understated the fraud and could benefit the Frist family greatly. If Frist was a patriot, he would have sold his HCA stock a long time ago.

In the Senate, Frist has used this influence to further HCA’s interests by successfully blocking a strong patients’ bill of rights, gridlocking a mandatory Medicare prescription drug benefit, and promoting arbitrary caps on legal recovery by innocent victims who sue negligent hospitals like HCA.

With the heart and lung surgeon in charge, a whole new set of “health care” issues are likely to make the Senate tick.

– Patients’ rights

Instead of expanding patients’ new rights to hold HMOs legally accountable for delaying or denying care, the Senate debate will now be about limiting the rights of innocent victims of medical delays and negligence to hold accountable doctors, hospitals and the HMOs they work for.

– Medicare prescription benefit

Rather than force price controls on a pharmaceutical industry that turned the tide for the GOP, the Senate will create a “voluntary” prescription drug program with insurers selling a new product to seniors with new profits.

– Universal coverage

Forget a national Medicare plan for everyone who needs affordable health coverage. The Senate will focus on Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs) which force the public, instead of insurers, to pay for their health care; bare-bones insurance policies that do not pay for drugs, hospitalization or maternity costs; and mandatory insurance laws that force people to buy an unaffordable, low-quality product.

Watch out, America. If the public does not lash out, health-care reform will be about new burdens on patients and new freedoms for industries.

Court and Smith are co-authors of “Making a Killing: HMOs and the Threat to Your Health” (Common Courage Press). Court is executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. Smith is a senior fellow at Civil Society Institute.

Consumer Watchdog
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