Frist’s elevation elevates the stakes

Sunday, January 12, 2003

January 13, 2003

WASHINGTON - The departure of Trent Lott and arrival of Bill Frist as the next Senate Majority Leader will, by many accounts, sharpen the focus on healthcare in the next Congress.

Frist (R – Tenn.), a Harvard-trained heart surgeon, has identified healthcare as his top priority. In 2000, he proposed a piece of legislation (Breaux-Frist) that would radically alter the complexion of the Medicare program by de-emphasizing HCFA (now CMS) and ramping up the Medicare HMO program.

One of the likely discussions to take place in the next Congress, given Frist’s ascension, involves privatization of the Medicare program. Should Congress provide incentive for seniors to move to Medicare HMOs by attaching the prescription drug plan to it, or go even further with privatization?

“There’s a lot of talk about getting into it [privatization] deeply,” said AAHomecare CEO Tom Connaughton. “I would suspect Bill Frist would be an activist who’d want to get into that debate. I don’t know that for sure, but I would suspect it.”

The risk of really significant Medicare reform resurrects the specter of Hilary Clinton’s single-payer healthcare efforts in the 1990s, a debacle that no one in the White House wants to revisit. For that reason, observers expect the White House to temper any grand plans Frist might have for moderate reform that produces a prescription drug benefit.