January 20, 2005

Bill Frist: Health Care in the 21st Century

Bill Frist is exercising a lot of restraint these days. For example, in his recent article ($$) about the future of healthcare published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Frist manages to resist any mention of the "marketplace" until the 48th word.

It might have been this extraordinary display of self-control on Frist's part that convinced me to read the rest of his article with an open mind. Whatever it was, I found that I agreed with most of what Frist wrote. I know it's weird, but I might even say that I shared his vision. Of course, we shouldn't get too carried away; I'm referring only to what Frist described in his article, which might be quite different from what's in his heart of hearts. (He is, after all, a Republican politician.)

Certain details in Frist's vision of the future are quite frightening, most of them having to do with some guy named Rodney, who "chooses" to have a "tiny, radio-frequency computer chip implanted in his abdomen that monitors his blood chemistries and blood pressure." To whom will this chip report, pray tell? Rodney's insurer? Frist neglects to say.

But apart from these (horrifying) details, I share many of Frist's common-sense aspirations for the American health-care system. For example, I'd love to have a system that was "responsive primarily to individual consumers, rather than to third-party payers." Hallelujah! Personal responsibility is as good for the average McDonald's eating, chain-smoking couch potato as it is for Dennis Koslowski, Ken Lay, and Martha Stewart. Isn't it?

Most importantly, Frist acknowledges that we must provide access to health care for everyone. Forget for a moment that this is the Republican Senate majority leader, and listen to this:

"First, we must agree on a guiding principle: all Americans deserve the security of lifelong, affordable access to high-quality health care. Despite pockets of tremendous quality, we are a long way today from realizing the goal of secure, lifelong, affordable access to quality health care for all. . . .

"The focus of the 21st-century health care system must be the patient. Such a system will ensure that patients have access to the safest and highest-quality care, regardless of how much they earn, where they live, how sick they are, or the color of their skin. . . .

"Organizing a system primarily around the needs of consumers and patients does not mean that people should simply go it alone. Government plays a crucial role. . . . [Government] must also provide a sturdy safety net with basic protections and additional assistance for the physically, mentally, or financially vulnerable. . . .

"The government must enroll all 5.6 million children eligible for Medicaid and S-CHIP within 24 months through a combination of streamlined enrollment procedures, increased financial incentives for outreach programs, and a new national "Cover the Kids" enrollment campaign. . . .

"To make sure every vulnerable American who needs health care gets health care, the United States will always need a strong safety net. The capacity of our community health centers should be doubled over the next 10 years, and sufficient resources should be allocated to maintaining the network of these centers. . . .

This kind of language reminds me of how fortunate we are to have Ted Kennedy Bill Frist in the Senate.

Frist, surprisingly, has enough breath left to wax poetic about things other than universal health care. Electronic medical records get a big boost. (See THCB for interesting commentary.) One of the better ideas from John Kerry's presidential campaign is resurrected--a "Healthy Mae" to administer a secondary market for health insurance. I'd have passed out if Frist had suggested amending ERISA 502(a)(3) to provide for consequential damages in lawsuits against welfare benefit plan fiduciaries, but I'm nothing if not a realist. I realize that even the most hard-core progressives have to take things one step at a time.

Some Democrats, undoubtedly, will suspect that Frist's words are just rhetoric. I know, I know, but that's politics for you. These worriworts might consider that the easiest way to make sure that Frist doesn't forget what he claims to stand for--health care for all--is for the Democrats to work with him to make this vision a reality. It's the perfect opportunity for bipartisanship, and you know how much the American people miss bipartisanship these days. Heck, between the Democrats helping out Frist on healthcare, and the fiscally conservative Republicans breaking with Bush and opposing Social Security privatization, George W. Bush's second term might just begin to overflow with bipartisanship.

At least, until our President decides to invade Iran.

Posted by Carey at January 20, 2005 07:41 PM

Fool me once, shame on you...
Fool me twice, shame on me,
Fool me more times than a human being should tolerate - well I'm a Democrat in Congress.

After the Medicare bill, I really hope most Democrats aren't thinking warm and fuzzy thoughts about bipartisanship and health care. Regardless of what Bill Frist says, remember that any health care bill will be completely rewritten by Tom DeLay in conference. Until and unless that changes, alleged bipartisanship is just cover for another scam.

Posted by: Ravi at January 20, 2005 08:43 PM

Frist is my Senator, and I've found out there there's a very simple test to determine if he's lying: his lips are moving (or his pen is moving if the communication in question is written).

I don't believe a word of his you've quoted; I have no doubt he's got some scheme to enrich the family business behind it all.

Posted by: Len Cleavelin at January 20, 2005 09:33 PM

Wait, wait, before we give up all hope...

I'm perfectly willing to accept that Frist is lying, that he doesn't really want much of this good stuff he's written about here. But still, he did say it. So it can be used against him.

Maybe not now, with Tom DeLay in the driver's seat over in the House. But if the current administration starts running into trouble with Social Security and its Iraq woes continue, a lot of congressional Republicans are going to be in a mood to deal. That would be the right time to waive Bill Frist's article around, and push for universal coverage. Any Republican opponents would have to waste a whole lot of energy explaining why they disagree with their Leader, Bill Frist.

Posted by: Carey at January 21, 2005 05:30 PM