April 3, 2009

Path to health reform long, complex: Frist

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Bill Frist, M.D., spoke at Vanderbilt last week about plans to reform the nation’s health care system. (photo by Joe Howell)

Path to health reform long, complex: Frist

President Barack Obama's approach to health care reform is “right in the middle,” between universal health care and cost control, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., said last week.

Obama “basically said we can't promise universal health care until we have some sort of constraint on slowing the growth of cost,” the Tennessee Republican and former transplant surgeon said during the Cal Turner Program leadership breakfast at the Vanderbilt University Club.

Of the $2.3 trillion spent annually on health care in this country, 30 percent is wasted, Frist said. Citing poor health outcomes compared to other nations, he added that this “does not get patients better at all, and in fact it hurts patients.”

That doesn't mean Frist supports the $634 billion Obama would set aside in his budget for health care reform over the next decade. That cost, he argued, will be passed onto the next generation.

Frist, 57, who has said he will not run for Tennessee governor next year, also answered with a quick “No” when asked if he would consider a presidential race in 2012. “I've got my niche right now,” he said. “I think I can have a bigger impact.”

Since retiring from the Senate in 2007, Frist has become increasingly involved in global health and education.

He teaches a course on health care policy at Vanderbilt, and recently announced a grassroots effort called the State Collaborative on Reforming Education or SCORE (www.tennesseescore.org).

“Today, unlike 30 years ago, 75 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math, are not proficient in science, are not proficient in English,” Frist said.

“Our education system is failing. Our health care system is about to drive us into bankruptcy … The economy is crashing … The greatness of America is really at risk at his point,” he continued. “It's going to require new ways of thinking and new people to participate in the process.”

Frist cited health information technology, which will receive $23 billion in federal stimulus funding over the next two years, as an approach that may hasten health care reform. “I'm a great believer,” he said. It “allows market-based principles, you know what you're buying (and) there's transparency.”

Frist also discussed his controversial 2005 decision, as Senate majority leader, to support legislation to require federal court review before a feeding tube could be withdrawn from a Florida woman in a persistent vegetative state.

Frist said that as a physician, he was comfortable morally and ethically with his decision to “exhaust the (legal) system” in the Terri Schiavo case. But he added, “I don't think it should be on the floor of the United States Senate … I wanted the court to ultimately decide.”

Frist's talk was sponsored by the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership in the Professions.