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Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee)
Apr 07, 2004
by Andy Sher, Washington Bureau
Complaint alleges Frist conflict of interestWASHINGTON -- A California-based consumers group filed a complaint Tuesday with the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, alleging U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has a conflict of interest on a medical liability bill because of his financial and family ties to the HCA hospital chain.
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights acknowledged in a letter that the Ethics Committee has considered the issue previously and concluded the ties posed no conflict. The hospital chain was founded by Sen. Frist's father and brother.
"However, Sen. Frist's current involvement in the medical malpractice debate rises beyond the level of general concern for health issues to specific advocacy for his family's company," wrote Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the foundation.
Frist spokesman Nick Smith, noting Sen. Frist's financial holdings are in a blind trust, denounced the complaint and its timing. The Senate this week is debating whether to cap medical-malpractice awards in some cases.
"This is clearly pure politics," Mr. Smith said. "We're eager to debate the Democrats on the policy of this issue (malpractice caps). Sen. Frist is deeply concerned by this crisis and its impact on patient access to quality care."
He noted that Sen. Frist, a heart-transplant surgeon before his 1994 Senate election, never has worked for HCA or served on its corporate board.
Senate Ethics Committee director Robert Walker said he could not comment on whether any complaint has been received.
In 1999, the Senate Ethics Committee's then-counsel stated in a letter that Sen. Frist's ownership of HCA stock posed no conflict because "it would appear that neither Senator Frist nor his immediate family own a controlling interest in any company in the health care field."
The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights' complaint states Sen. Frist transferred HCA stock worth between $10 million and $30 million to blind trusts in late December 2000. It states that between $1 million and $2.3 million in HCA stock since has been added, while just under $625,000 in the stock has been sold.
Ms. Balber said the bill, if passed, "would directly benefit HCA's bottom line." She said HCA owns a subsidiary malpractice insurer, Health Care Indemnity.
E-mail Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org
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