Former Senator Frist Makes Grim Diagnosis of American Health-Care System

| May 07, 2008
Bill Frist
Bill Frist
Former Senate Majority Leader (and potential 2010 gubernatorial candidate) Bill Frist was in town this week, delivering a Tuesday luncheon speech to the East Memphis Rotary Club on the theme of health care. Frist described himself as "much more egalitarian than the typical Republican," and, for the most part, he sounded like it.

Speaking no longer as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration (his no doubt onerous task during the last four years of a Senate career that ended in early 2007) the onetime heart transplant physician said frankly that the nation faced a crisis in providing health care to some 47 million uninsured and that there had been a lack of leadership "at the presidential level" in resolving the crisis. Frist noted the incongruity between the ever-rising cost of healthcare in America, highest among all developed nations, and the fact that America rates no better than 46th in the world in longevity rates.

Asked to compare the health plans advocated by the three leading candidates for the presidency, Frist did so fairly, summing up the advantages of each, and seemed to some ears to tilt toward the semi-voluntary plan advocated by Democrat Barack Obama. "He counts in the costs," Frist said approvingly.

The former senator spoke more about his recent health missions to Uganda and other African countries than he did politics, though he found time to issue a round condemnation of what he called "bi-modal" government (that which most of us refer to as excessive partisanship).

The sentiments Frist uttered on Tuesday seemed unexceptionable, though some would maintain that his own sponsorship of the Medicare drug bill of some years back has contributed more than a tad to the $35 trillion unfunded liability of Medicare now -- something Frist made a point of deploring.

Asked afterward about the relationship of the prescription-drug entitlement itself to the size of the liability, the former senator insisted that only $6 trillion or so of the overage could be laid to that cause.

On the related issue of whether the prescription-drug bill should have included a provision allowing the government to negotiate block rates with drug companies -- a provision hotly resisted at the time by the Republican leadership -- Frist contended that competition between drug companies themselves has mitigated such a need but added, "I do think that Congress will end up passing that provision."

All in all, Nashville native Frist -- promoted by various Republicans, and maybe by himself, as a candidate for governor in 2010 -- came across as sensible in much of his diagnosis, and thereby made the case that such remedies as he may want to propose are worth a serious listen.

This is a man, after all, whom the fates themselves seem to have entangled in affairs of state.

While still an apolitical physician some years before his maiden race in politics (for the Senate in 1994), Frist (as he reminded the Rotarians) was called upon to do emergency heart surgery on an Army officer who had received an accidental bullet during a training exercise at Fort Campbell, a Nashvile-area Army base.

The soldier? David Petraeus, who now serves as commanding general of American troops in Iraq and presides over the continuing "surge" effort there.

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