Amy Holmes for The Takeaway: We are joined by my former boss, Senate Majority Leader, Bill Frist. Good morning. Thank you for joining us.
Dr. Bill Frist: Great to be with you, thank you.
Amy Holmes: So as you’re watching this health care debat unfold, do you wish you were still back in the mix, back in the Senate?
Dr. Bill Frist: Amy, it is so good to be out of there. No, of course I do. I spent 20 years in medicine, in heart and lung transplantation, worked for a socialized system in England for a year, and did a lot of policy in health care there. It’s very exciting. Challenges are out there, needs have been identified, so I’d love to be there. But as you can see, it’s like making sausage, a very tough time for our legislators and the American people.
John Hockenberry: You have a lot on your resume: Doctor and Senator. Amy, you’re a former speech writer for Senator Frist. I’m wondering if it’s tougher to be a speech writer for you or tougher to be a surgical assistant to you.
Dr. Bill Frist: You’ll have to ask Amy. It’s all healing. It’s interesting, really healing one on one, to going to the United States Senate, losing your mind and going to the Senate and healing there as well. But it’s a great opportunity to serve the American people.
Amy Holmes: Let’s look at the policy of health care that’s been debated. What’s the good in it, and what do you think is the bad?
Dr. Bill Frist: Amy, first of all, we have huge problems in our health care system today, and I say that as one who has literally been on the ground. The biggest challenge, I think, is the cost. And I think that’s what most people see out there, the fact that their premiums are going up three times faster than wages, it really can’t be sustained. Then the big egalitarian challenge out there is that how, in the richest country in the world, where most people out there really think that we have an obligation — I certainly think we do — and a responsibility to take care of those people who can’t take care of themselves. The 20 million uninsured out there, how do we bring them into the market? And to do all of that, which is the challenge that our legislators have, in a time where our debt is skyrocketing as a country, doubling of our number of seniors, a challenge where people are going bankrupt in their own lives every day now, how do you add a huge cost, a huge expense, to bring those people into the system?
John Hockenberry: Let me quibble with your assumption there, at the risk of being a bad host, Senator. You say that how do we bring them into the market those 20 million uninsured, but the market kicked them out.
Dr. Bill Frist: They did.
John Hockenberry: So it’s not a matter of bringing them into the market. The government explicitly has to do what the market won’t do. I don’t know if there’s a market-based solution here.
Dr. Bill Frist: Oh, there is a market-based solution. We’ve got 160 million people out there today who are in private insurance. And if you basically say let’s take that away, put them in, for example, a government plan, what’ll happen is what I saw in England. It really will be a rationing of care.
John Hockenberry: Alright. “Government plan,” dirty word. “Government co-op,” dirty word?
Dr. Bill Frist: “Government plan” is not a dirty word. I think what a dirty word is a public plan that is nationalized that takes away patient choice, that ultimately results in being a system, like in England, that discourages innovation. That’s what’s bad. The public plan itself is not bad. So clearly, as a backup, you need to have something outside the private sector, and that could be local, it could be state-run, it could be a coalition, it could be a cooperative.
Amy Holmes: So let’s get back to the politics of this. It looks like that those Blue Dog Democrats have slowed down the process and the House and the Senate will not meet this August recess deadline. Why do you think this is happening? How have the politics played out?
Dr. Bill Frist: I think President Obama really took a misstep here. Even today he ends up bashing the previous administration. That’s sort of his mantra. It works in a campaign, it works for maybe the first couple months, but what he really should’ve been doing is uniting the Democrats. People like Jim Cooper from Tennessee, a Blue Dog Democrat, a centrist Democrat who basically says, “We can’t add $1.6 trillion in additional spending today.”
John Hockenberry: He’s on the program later. Actually, we’re going to talk to him.
Dr. Bill Frist: Oh, is he? Basically, I think that President Obama, first of all he’s the most inspirational politician I’ve ever met. But at the end of the day he should’ve been focusing on those Blue Dog Democrats, bringing them into the room.
John Hockenberry: Let me grab two things that you just said, because I really can’t resist. On the one hand you’re saying we want entrepreneurial, sort of innovation in health care, not like in England. Yet the innovation that happens in American health care is focused on end-of-life procedures, expensive procedures, it’s not in the preventative aspect, the sort of cost reduction areas that might help all of our health. It’s much more in the sort of expensive surgical end of medicine. As a surgeon, why do we take a doctor’s advice on reforming health care when so much of the cost of health care is associated with what you do?
Dr. Bill Frist: First of all, I am a heart and lung transplant surgeon, it’s very expensive and life saving. Bu I also understand the importance of clean water, the number one killer of people in the world today, around the world. Public health issues, research, basic things like prevention have to be increased, they’re ongoing today. We do emphasize specialized care too much over primary care. And that’s one of the good things President Obama is doing in this legislation is focusing on primary care. Countries like England and even Canada do a better job than us. It’s rebuilding the incentives of the greatest health care — yes, technology — but also I would argue basic health care in terms of prevention in terms of innovation in the world. The problem is inadequate distribution. We’re leaving 46 million people out of what 220 million, 230 million people are taking advantage of.
John Hockenberry: You sure you don’t wish you were back there?
Amy Holmes: So you’ve been talking to some of these members of the “Gang of Six,” as they’re called. Three Republican Senators and three Democratic Senators.
John Hockenberry: Baucus, Grassley…
Amy Holmes: …Enzi, and so forth. What compromises do you think need to be made in order for there to be a bi-partisan consensus on the Senate side?
Dr. Bill Frist: Amy, we can’t spend $1.6 trillion at this time. People listening to us are losing their jobs, companies are going bankrupt, people are operating on margins, and to say that you’re going to need to fork up $1.6 trillion. So you’re going to have to squeeze the program down, maybe to $500 billion, as a first step. President Obama basically wants to cure all of the problems in six months, and although he’s a great politician, the American people know you can’t do that.
Amy Holmes: Health care is one sixth of the economy, it’s the size of France.
Dr. Bill Frist: Right. Eighteen percent of the economy, and maybe that’s not even so bad. The problem is growing faster than any other part of the economy and growing faster than wages. President Obama can’t keep promising the type of insurance that he has as a United States Senator, or had, or that Bill Frist had to 46 million people, and then basically look at people and say, “You’re not going to have to pay for it at all.” You just can’t do that in this day and time.
John Hockenberry: Isn’t it worth $1.5 trillion if we actually do get health care reform. Imagine what we spent on Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, I think that’s what Americans are asking, “Let’s pay some money for this. This is worth something to me.”
Dr. Bill Frist: But they’re not. Right now, the Democrat plan on the table, the Waxman plan, the only one that’s been written that says those people making more than $175,000 apiece, a couple making $350,000, are going to have to pay an additional $20,000 tomorrow, soon, in order to cover the 46 million people who’ve been promised a gold-plated, Cadillac version of a plan that simply can’t be done in this day and time. I am for 100 percent coverage, or coverage for 100 percent of America, affordable coverage. I am. Bill Frist, Republican. I think we need to move toward universal care. The problem is we can’t do it when this country is going bankrupt and the American taxpayer and the American family feels that bankruptcy today. Let’s face it.
Amy Holmes: Senator Frist, thanks so much for joining us here this morning.