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Health-care industry helps pay way for Senate leader
WASHINGTON -- Shortly after Sen. Bill Frist introduced legislation limiting suits against vaccine makers, the drug industry's trade group gave $10,000 to the surgeon-turned-politician's political action committee.
Throughout his political career, the new Senate majority leader has supported the health-care industry and the industry has supported him.
Frist, R-Tenn., has raised more than $2 million from doctors, health insurers, drug companies and others in the health care industry. That's roughly 20 percent of all the contributions to his two Senate campaigns.
Spokesman Nick Smith said the senator's votes have nothing to do with his contributions.
"Health care is a priority of Senator Frist," Smith said. "He works on legislation that improves the quality of health care and the affordability of health care for all Americans."
Industries often give to lawmakers who sit on the committees overseeing their interests, and Frist is a member of the Senate Health Committee.
But Frist's relationship with the health industry is deeper. Besides being the Senate's only medical doctor, his father founded what is now HCA Inc., the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain.
"It's not at all surprising that the industry is one of the big givers to him," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money and campaigns.
"He is one of their people in terms of where he comes from, in terms of the committees he's on. He's from the industry, he supports the industry and he understands their problems and needs."
HCA is Frist's largest lifetime financial patron; the company and its officers and employees have contributed $172,250 to the senator's campaign committee and his leadership political action committee, which raises funds under federal contribution limits as well as unlimited soft money donations.
The company recently agreed to pay the Justice Department $631 million to settle allegations of health care fraud that occurred when the company was headed by Rick Scott.
Frist's next four largest contributors also have Tennessee connections: FedEx, which gave $140,225; AutoZone, $115,000; Vanderbilt University, $74,950; and the law firm of Bass, Berry and Sims, whose clients include HCA and which gave $59,875. The figures include donations from employees, officials, the companies and PACs.
The president of the American Medical Association said doctors appreciate having one of their own on Capitol Hill.
"You don't have to give a lot of background and explanation," said Dr. Yank D. Coble, an endocrinologist in Jacksonville, Fla. "This is a person you can communicate with and has some experiences you can relate to."
Frist has supported the drug industry and the medical community on several key issues. In March, he introduced legislation to limit suits against companies who used Thimerosal, a mercury-based ingredient in certain childhood vaccines that some parents believe have caused autism in their children. The bill would have required the parents to file claims through a federal vaccine compensation program that caps damages at $250,000.
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry trade group, supported the measure. After Frist introduced the bill, the drug trade group gave $10,000 to Frist's political action committee.
House Republicans, who received $1 million in campaign contributions from the drug industry's trade group, eventually added the provision to the homeland security bill. The contributions came in the two months leading up to the measure's passage. House and Senate leaders said Friday they would pass legislation removing the provision.
Smith said the senator's bill was based on recommendations from a federal advisory committee on vaccines and the American Academy of Pediatrics. "He, like many Americans, is very concerned about a stable and affordable vaccine supply," Smith said.
The senator also sided with the drug industry on other votes. In the last session of Congress, Frist was one of 21 senators to vote against legislation to speed generic drugs to market, allow importers to buy U.S.-made drugs in Canada, and allow states to force drug companies to give Medicaid discounts. And he voted against the industry-opposed Democratic plan for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Frist also joined with his fellow doctors to support an unsuccessful effort to limit punitive damages and curtail lawyers' fees in medical malpractice cases.