Posted on January 10, 2003

Frist's loyalty is to health care industry, not patients


January 4, 2003

By Jamie Court and Frank Smith

Capitol Hill's well-heeled lobbyists and political cognoscenti 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 house, Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), typifies the GOP government'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.

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 that Eli Lilly bought 5,000 copies of Frist's recent book.

As head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, 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 supermajority against him. Given these powers, it's little wonder there were few words of criticism about this election, even from Senate Democrats.

Frist's ownership and entanglement with one of America's biggest corporate criminals, hospital chain Columbia/HCA, shows his loyalty 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 the 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.

Last month, Rep. Pete Stark, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means health subcommittee, stated that the government's HCA settlement may have understated the fraud and could benefit the Frist family greatly.

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 victims who sue negligent hospitals like HCA.

With the heart and lung transplant surgeon in charge, a whole new set of ''health care'' issues are likely to make the U.S. 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 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 the 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, 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.

Beware, America. If the public doesn't lash out, health care reform will mean new burdens on patients and new freedoms for industries.

Jamie Court is executive director of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. Frank Smith is senior fellow at Massachusetts-based Civil Society Institute. They are co-authors of Making A Killing: HMOs and the Threat to Your Health (Common Courage Press).