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GOP Wants AIDS, Schiavo Mythmaker Bill Frist as Ebola Czar

October 21, 2014

Not content with having blocked President Obama's nominee for Surgeon General over his common sense description of gun violence as a public health issue, Republicans in and out of Congress want one of their own to be the President's point-man on Ebola. Instead of Ron Klain, conservatives including Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Steve Forbes are championing physician and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist as their ideal Ebola Czar. But if they decry Klain as a "political hack," it's hard to imagine a worse choice than Dr. Frist to combat the deadly virus. After all, the multimillionaire GOP partisan who almost went to prison over insider trading and wrongly diagnosed Terry Schiavo also lied to the American people about the transmissibility of HIV/AIDS.

Bill Frist's perversion of science for partisan political purposes begins, but certainly does not end, with AIDS. In December 2004, Senator Frist tried to defend a federally-funded abstinence program which claimed that HIV/AIDS could be contracted through tears and sweat. Pressed by ABC News host George Stephanopoulos, Frist was forced to recant.

He repeatedly declined to say whether he thought HIV-AIDS could be transmitted through tears or sweat. A much-disputed federal education program championed by some conservative groups had suggested that such transmissions occur.
After numerous challenges by Stephanopoulos, Frist said that "it would be very hard" for someone to contract AIDS via tears or sweat. The Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says: "Contact with saliva, tears, or sweat has never been shown to result in transmission of HIV."

But when it came to the case of Terri Schiavo in 2005, Dr. Frist's malpractice went from the merely pathetic to the absolutely perverse. During the height of the intense battle over Michael Schiavo's effort to honor his wife's wishes in March 2005, Doctor Frist took to the Senate floor to offer his own videotape diagnosis of a patient he had never seen. Disputing assessments that Schiavo was in a permanent vegetative state (a diagnosis later confirmed by autopsy), Frist declared:

"I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office," he said in a lengthy speech in which he quoted medical texts and standards. "She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli."

A surprised and concerned Laurie Zoloth, director of bioethics for the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University, noted of Doctor Frist's statements, "It is extremely unusual -- and by a non-neurologist, I might add. There should be no confusion about the medical data, and that's what was so surprising to me about Dr. Frist disagreeing about her medical status." Democratic strategist Marshall Wittman was much less charitable:

"I suspect that Senator Frist has his eye more on the Iowa caucus than the Hippocratic Oath."

Frist's political uses of science cut both ways. In 2001, Senator Frist strongly supported President Bush's draconian curbs on stem cell research. But in the wake of his disastrous intervention in the Schiavo case, the would-have-been presidential candidate Frist decided discretion was the better part of valor and switched sides. After his Schiavo debacle, Frist no doubt concluded the reversal on stem cells was necessary for the 2008 general election. Calling him a "sell-out" and "Dr. Duplicity", his former friends on the religious right made it clear he would never survive the GOP primaries.
As it turns out, Doctor Frist's dubious medical ethics both predated and followed his time in elected office. As a student, Frist was a frequent visitor to animal shelters where the future physician adopted cats only to dissect them later as part of his learn-at-home medical studies. Later, Senator Frist's World of Hope faith-based charity may have won awards for its work on AIDS, but its fundraising also filled the coffers of many of Frist's closest associates. And in 2007, Frist narrowly avoided insider trading charges in connection with his sale of stock from the HCA business started by his father and brother.
And if the name HCA sounds familiar, it should. As I documented two years ago, Hospital Corporation of America has been the nexus of wrongdoing by some of the biggest names in Republican politics. One of the nation's largest for-profit hospital firms, HCA was facing scrutiny for suspect billing practices, unnecessary procedures and questionable profit-taking that increased following its 2009 buyout by private equity firms including Mitt Romney's former firm, Bain Capital.

Before the giant chain came to operate 163 hospitals nationwide, it was owned by the family of former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. In the 1990's, the Hospital Corporation of America founded by Frist's father merged with Columbia Healthcare Corporation, a group then led by current Florida Governor Rick Scott. Scott was later forced off the board after HCA was forced to pay a staggering $1.7 billion penalty for Medicare fraud. For his part, in 2007 Doctor Frist was eventually cleared of insider trading involving his supposedly blind trust's sale of HCA stock.

To be sure, Bill Frist has contributed his time, money and expertise to help the needy and the sick. (Two weeks ago, he penned an op-ed offering his own advice on how to handle the Ebola crisis.) But he long ago disqualified himself as a leader in public health policy when repeatedly placed the needs of his Republican Party over patients. That's why the conservative campaign to crown Dr. Bill Frist as Ebola Czar deserves the same response as his disgusting performance in the Schiavo case. AS Democratic strategist Jim Jordan put it at the time:

"It's quackery. It'd be hilarious if it weren't so grotesque."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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