Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) Elected Senate Republican Leader, To Focus on Health Care
Republican senators and senators-elect on Dec. 23 unanimously elected Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) as their leader, setting the stage for the physician-by-training to become the Senate majority leader when the 108th Congress convenes next week, the New York Times reports. In his acceptance speech, Frist said he will work to strengthen Medicare, provide more affordable prescription drugs to seniors and the disabled and reduce the number of uninsured U.S. residents (Firestone, New York Times, 12/24/02). However, Frist did not offer any specifics about his health care agenda for the new congressional session, the Washington Post reports (Dewar, Washington Post, 12/24/02). In his remarks, Frist said the Senate should improve Medicare "to give our seniors and those individuals with disabilities the things that they really deserve today," adding, "We need to address prescription drugs for seniors and individuals with disabilities, and we will do just that." Frist continued, "We need to focus on the uninsured and those who suffer from health care disparities that we so inadequately addressed in the past" (New York Times, 12/24/02).
Like President Bush, Frist is a "staunch believer" in fixing the health care system through government incentives for health care insurers and subsidies for the poor to compensate for the cost of health insurance premiums, according to the Albany Times Union (Holland/Freedman, Albany Times Union, 12/24/02). However, Frist has crossed party lines to work with Democrats on certain health care issues, such as reforming Medicare and combating the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, the AP/Baltimore Sun reports (AP/Baltimore Sun, 12/25/02).
Donald Palmisano, president-elect of the American Medical Association, said, "It's encouraging to us that many issues [Frist] has championed are our top priorities," the Times Union reports (Albany Times Union, 12/24/02). According to pollster and Republican strategist David Winston, Frist could help the Republicans on the issue of health care much the same way President Bush has done with the issue of education, the Washington Times reports. "If that same sort of shift could occur on the issue of health care, that would be a major positive for the Republican Party. And now we've got the person who's probably got the best stature on the issue leading the Republicans," Winston said. However, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said Frist's health care expertise "cuts both ways" because he is "seen by many as having close ties to the health care industry," the Washington Times reports (Fagan/Lakely, Washington Times, 12/24/02). Frist has faced criticism for his ties to the beleaguered hospital chain HCA, which his father and brother founded and helped run. Frist has reaped a "multi-million dollar fortune" from his personal investments in HCA. However, Frist has never played a role in running the nation's largest chain of for-profit hospitals. Frist also has faced criticism for his ties to drug maker Eli Lilly, after the company revealed that it helped boost sales of Frist's recent best-selling book on bioterrorism. Those ties were further questioned after a proposal written by Frist was "quietly woven" into the Homeland Security bill, since enacted into law; the proposal restricts the ability of people to sue Lilly for injuries related to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in vaccines against childhood diseases (California Healthline, 12/23/02).
NPR's "Morning Edition" Dec. 24 reported on the "major obstacles" that Frist will face in the next Congress in his efforts to pass health care legislation on issues such as adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare and providing health insurance coverage to the uninsured. The segment includes comments from Frist, Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) (Rovner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 12/24/02). The full segment is available in RealPlayer online. In addition, NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday included a discussion of how Frist's election to Senate majority leader could influence the Bush administration's legislative agenda. Democratic strategist James Carville said that he wants to see if Frist "is going to keep his word" to Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and remove the Eli Lilly vaccine provision from the recently passed homeland security bill (Russert, "Meet the Press," NBC, 12/29/02). A full transcript of the program is available online ("Meet the Press," NBC, 12/29/02).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.