The threat index for Medicare fraud shot up to “code red” when Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) took Trent Lott’s place as Senate Majority Leader. A darling of George W. Bush, Frist is now positioned to ramrod privatization of the nation’s most important health care system.

This is a scam that could truly enrich private health care providers including HCA/

Columbia hospital chain of which Frist is a wealthy heir. George W. Bush will propose sweeping changes in Medicare in the guise of promoting “competition” between Medicare and private health plans. But critics warn that defined benefits for a vast range of treatments and medical procedures now provided free under Medicare would be terminated in favor of a fixed voucher given to each Medicare recipient. It will mean more expensive, lower quality care for the people but it is certain to be a profit bonanza for HCA.

The Bush scheme is similar to legislation introduced by Frist and Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) over the past three years. The narrow GOP margin in the Senate underlines the danger of defections of even one or two Democrats like Breaux to the Republican camp. With House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) fully endorsing the plan, the step-by-step privatization of Medicare, which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich warned is the only way to destroy this vital federal entitlement program, is now on a fast track.

Frist is an organ transplant surgeon with a personal fortune of $20 million, $13 million of it investments in the HCA/

Columbia hospital and nursing home chain founded by his father, Thomas Frist Sr. HCA is the nation’s largest hospital conglomerate, a $20 billion empire that includes 340 hospitals, 135 outpatient surgery centers, and 200 home health care centers in 38 states.

The senator pleads that all his investments are kept in a blind trust. But that has not stopped him from ramrodding health care legislation to enrich the medical-industrial complex. He and Senator Jay Rockefeller co-authored a bill that for the first time permitted hospital chains and doctors to compete with HMOs for Medicare contracts, a bill that enriched Frist.

Last year, Frist authored legislation to exempt Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant, from damages awarded in lawsuits by parents outraged that their children were given Eli Lilly vaccines laced with mercury. It is believed to have caused autism in their youngsters. Later that same legislation mysteriously appeared in the fine print of the Homeland Security Act, railroaded through in the final hours of the 107th Congress. It was such a cynical ploy that no one claimed credit for the amendment. But it is now reported that Frist was the author.

Tommy Frist Jr., Bill Frist’s brother, is still serving as a vice president of HCA, tending to the family fortune and working to cover up the company’s record of corporate crime. HCA has pleaded guilty to 14 counts of felony fraud, over-billing the Federal government by tens of millions of dollars in false Medicare charges. Just last week they agreed to pay $1.7 billion in fines and penalties to terminate all outstanding civil litigation for unnecessary surgeries that fattened the bottom line and inflicted needless pain and suffering on thousands of patients.

Sen. Frist, ever on the lookout for a photo op, rushes to help the sick and injured. But he has been silent on HCA/Columbia’s felonies. HCA also has a sordid history of union-busting. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found HCA/Columbia guilty in 2000 of using tactics of fear and intimidation to keep workers from organizing themselves into unions in their hospitals and nursing homes.

HCA/Columbia’s mode of operation has been to purchase scores of hospitals across the nation, including public hospitals that serve the poor and uninsured. Their first step is to terminate charity care and replace senior health professionals with less experienced personnel while also reducing the numbers of nurses in the hospital wards.

Marc Gardner, former vice president of HCA/Columbia told an ABC interviewer that he “committed felonies every day.” HCA, he charged was poisoned with “an arrogant corporate culture in which meeting demands for profits became far more important than caring for patients or obeying the law.” The Bush-DeLay-Frist agenda for Medicare reform will be to simply legalize the massive theft that enriched HCA/Columbia.

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