Sen. Frist, a physician first, calls for Medicare reform and AIDS
February 22, 2003
Text of Frist's speech
by Eric Quiñones
William Frist's transition from surgeon to Senate majority leader
-- a path forged from his dual concentration in science and public
policy at Princeton -- brings a unique perspective to his new role,
influencing his push for swift Medicare reform and increased AIDS
research, Frist said in his Alumni Day address Saturday.
Since being elected to the Senate from Tennessee in 1994 -- becoming
the first practicing physician since 1928 to serve in Congress --
Frist has seen many similarities between being a legislator and
practicing medicine during his years as a renowned heart surgeon.
"Both are healing. Both involve patience," he said, circling the
podium in front of a capacity audience of alumni and students at
Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall. "Both involve taking calculated
risks in terms of some boldness and some courage. Both involve listening."
Frist, who specialized in health care policy and earned his A.B.
from Princeton in 1974, is this year's recipient of the Woodrow
Wilson Award. The award is bestowed annually upon an undergraduate
alumnus or alumna whose career embodies the call to duty in Wilson's
famous speech, "Princeton in the Nation's Service."
Since taking over from Trent Lott as Senate majority leader in
January, Frist often is asked about the greatest challenge of his
"My answer is to compel the United States Congress to stretch our
horizons ... to address what is to me a very obvious growing imbalance
between the policies on the one hand and the inevitable, immutable
demographic shift caused by the aging of America's population,"
With America's baby boom population nearing retirement age, Frist
said a "tidal wave" of demand will be put upon the Medicare system.
Yet the government, he noted, has not reformed the nearly 40-year-old
program to keep up with advances in medical technology and health
care costs, leaving many elderly Americans without comprehensive
coverage for prescription drugs, preventive care or catastrophic
This problem will only get worse as the number of senior citizens
doubles over the next three decades, rising from 12 percent of the
overall population to 22 percent, Frist warned.
"That wave will begin starting about seven years from now. It is
imminent, it is fast-approaching, it is much more powerful than
any of us had previously imagined. Our policies don't reflect the
realities of that baby boom," he said.
Because legislators are beholden to their election cycles, they
are not thinking enough about the long-term fate of Medicare, Frist
said. But, he emphasized, as long as the Federal Employees' Health
Benefit Plan continues to provide its members -- including himself
and other members of Congress -- with broad choices, good benefits
and relatively affordable premiums, Medicare must be reformed to
provide those same options to all elderly Americans.
Frist also stressed the need for increased funding for AIDS research,
echoing comments made by fellow Alumni Day speaker and James Madison
Medalist Peter Bell that characterized the continued global spread
of the HIV virus as a "devastating humanitarian crisis."
Frist, who travels to Africa every year as a medical mission doctor,
recounted the story of meeting an HIV-infected mother in Botswana
who was forced to send her children to live with her mother because
she was physically unable to care for them. He hoped to help the
audience put a face on the overwhelming statistics about AIDS, which
has killed 23 million people since 1981 and threatens to kill another
60 million by 2020.
Noting that President Bush proposed $15 billion in spending --
up from $1.2 billion this year -- on the fight against AIDS, Frist
stressed that the United States must influence leaders of other
nations to take similar action.
"The President of the United States, speaking for the American
people, has demonstrated global leadership in opening the eyes of
the world to the devastation, to this greatest humanitarian crisis
of our times and possibly of all time," he said.
As Senate majority leader, Frist is able to highlight these issues
that concerned him as a physician and, ultimately, will affect the
health of the entire world.
"My position," he said, "gives me the ability to decide what the
United States Senate debates on the floor of that body and what
becomes legislation. The priorities that you hear about are affected
by my past."