Frist’s “Big Vision” Gets Bigger

Published February 1, 2003

Last month, this column reported on Tennessee Republican Senator Bill Frist’s “Big Vision” for Medicare reform. We did not expect at the time that he would soon be occupying the powerful seat of majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

Frist, 50, a heart-lung transplant surgeon, first entered politics in a successful bid for a Senate seat in 1994. He swiftly gravitated to the top in an institution that usually honors seniority.

According to the news service Reuters, Frist comes from a wealthy family with deep roots in Tennessee. He was educated at Princeton and Harvard and became a pioneering multi-organ transplant surgeon, establishing the transplant program at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

In 1994, he embraced politics, saying he wanted to be a citizen-legislator walking the line between the worlds of medicine and public policy. He quickly became a mover and shaker, first as a prominent Republican voice on health care issues and later as George W. Bush’s liaison to the Senate during the 2000 Presidential campaign. Most recently, Frist headed the Senate Republican campaign committee during the 2002 elections that led to the Republicans’ winning a majority.

Ties That Bind

The anthrax letters sent to the Senate in late 2001 further elevated Frist’s public profile. He served as a calm-headed liaison between the Senate and anthrax health experts, explaining the science in layman’s language and preventing a panic.

Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, told the media, “We have found him to be an extremely good leader, particularly on scientific issues, able to explain often arcane intricacies to other members of the Congress who are not scientists.”

In a strange twist of fate, given the role Senator Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) played in bringing down former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Frist helped revive Thurmond when he collapsed on the Senate floor at age 98. Frist has also treated numerous people who became ill while visiting the Capitol over the years; helped save the life of the gunman who was shot after killing two Capitol policemen in 1998; and on January 1, 2003 helped save the lives of two auto accident victims in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Health Care Reformer

With health care expected to be at the top of the domestic agenda this year, Frist is in the right place at the right time. He will steer the Senate’s work on such key issues as Medicare reform and prescription drug benefits and will help define new approaches to the uninsured problem.

Frist backs a ban on the controversial procedure known as “partial-birth abortion” and generally backs Bush’s framework for limiting stem cell research.

One of the first controversies Frist faces is a provision, slipped into the homeland security law, barring lawsuits over whether a mercury-containing preservative in childhood vaccines causes autism. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has vowed to repeal the provision as soon as possible. Frist generally supports the lawsuit ban, and he wrote a similar version earlier. But his version was part of a much broader bill that would have revamped vaccine injury compensation as well.

Health Care Connection

The Frist family fortune comes from Health Care America (HCA, now known as HCA The Healthcare Company), a for-profit hospital chain, which his father and brother founded in 1968, while Frist was still a teenager.

HCA later merged with Columbia Health Care, becoming engulfed in an extensive and prolonged Medicare fraud investigation that led to big civil fines as a result of behavior attributed to Columbia. A criminal probe was dropped, and the investigation did not focus on Frist’s relatives. The Senator himself did not help run the company and was never implicated in any wrongdoing.

Democrats have claimed First is overly sympathetic to the causes of pharmaceutical companies and are likely to try to tarnish his reputation by continuing to demonize drug companies.

Pharmaceutical companies used to split their donations somewhat evenly between Democrats and Republicans. But now, with Medicare and drug patent reform on the table, the industry trend is to give more than they used to, and mostly to Republicans.

Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News.