Physician-Turned-Senator Bill Frist to Lead US Senate

By Emily Bass

On 23 December 2002, Republican William Frist (Tennessee) was selected as the new US Senate majority leader, replacing Senator Trent Lott and assuming one of the most powerful positions in the US Congress. As the Senate leader, Frist will become a public spokesman and important negotiator for the party, as well as a key figure in deciding which bills are taken up for consideration by the Senate.

A former heart and lung transplant specialist, Senator Frist is one of only two physicians in the US Congress. He has been associated with various legislative initiatives on AIDS and healthcare. During the last Congressional session, he co-sponsored the “US Leadership on AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria Bill,” (see Vaccine Briefs), a failed attempt to authorize increased spending on these global diseases. Frist was also the Senate co-sponsor of the “Vaccines Affordability and Accessibility Act” (S.2053), a bill that sought to increase public education on and uptake of vaccines (such as hepatitis A and B) among adults and adolescents in the US, which did not pass into law. And he was the first Republican co-sponsor of the “Vaccines for the New Millennium Act” (S.895), which called for tax credits to companies working on vaccines against AIDS, TB and malaria, and for measures to help ensure access when these vaccines are licensed; the bill was not passed into law. As a member of the Senate budget committee, Frist has played an important role in setting appropriation levels for global AIDS spending, although with his new leadership responsibilities, future committee membership may be curtailed.

Some AIDS advocates greeted the news of Frist’s appointment with cautious optimism. “The proof will be what he does with his leadership position,” said Chris Collins, executive director of the New York-based AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition. “He is clearly someone who understands the importance of vaccines and funding for AIDS. The ingredients are there for him to make a real difference.”

Looking to the next Congressional session, which starts in January 2003, Collins said he would be waiting to see what Senator Frist can accomplish on authorizations and appropriations in global AIDS and health issues” and how he will follow-up on the US Leadership bill, which came within “a hair’s breadth” of passing. To revive the bill, a new version would have to be introduced and approved in both houses of Congress.

But Paul Davis of the Health GAP Coalition, a group focused on US-based AIDS policy advocacy, points out that in lieu of a new version, a presidential initiative could be brought directly to Congress [which would have to appropriate the funds], and that Senator Frist can use his newfound power to help ensure that this happens.