NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- An analysis of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's voting record shows a pattern of supporting bills that benefit HCA Inc., the Nashville-based hospital company that's been the foundation of the Frist family's wealth.
Frist's office said the Tennessee Republican wasn't available to comment directly on the Tennessean newspaper's research, but he has said in the past that his connections to HCA have not influenced his actions in the Senate.
Frist, considered to be a possible 2008 presidential candidate, has often been criticized for his financial stake in HCA possibly creating a conflict of interest.
"Because he owned so much stock in HCA ... there is the appearance that any legislation that could help the company would have helped him financially," said Mike Surrusco, ethics director for Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group, which has called on the Senate ethics committee to reconsider whether Frist should be prohibited from voting on bills that could affect the fortunes of his family.
A bill Frist introduced in July was designed to help insure the uninsured and limit jury awards.
Uninsured patients hurt HCA, which loses billions of dollars when they don't pay their bills. The company set aside $2.7 billion in 2004 for such doubtful accounts.
HCA-owned Health Care Indemnity Inc., one of the country's largest providers of medical malpractice insurance, would benefit from limits on hefty jury awards.
Frist's supporters note that he hasn't always voted for bills in HCA's interest and say he has followed all Senate ethics rules.
Other bills supported by Frist have given hospitals more money for treating seniors and curbed development of physician-owned specialty hospitals that compete with HCA.
Frist's votes also have helped HCA in less obvious ways. Several years ago, he fought a Democratic-sponsored version of a "patients' bill of rights" that would have allowed patients to sue their HMOs and collect unlimited damages.
Physician groups such as the American Medical Association supported the bill, but Frist, a former heart-lung transplant surgeon, opposed it. He argued that it would do more to help trial lawyers than it would to help patients.
Had the bill become law, the added cost of the jury awards could have put financial pressure on health plans to pay hospitals and other providers less money for services they provide. HMOs and other insurance plans accounted for 42 percent of HCA's revenue when the bill of rights came up for a vote in 2001.
HCA spokesman Jeff Prescott said the company doesn't lobby Frist and tries to keep him at arm's length from the company, but declined further comment.