Former GOP Sen. Frist urges party to back key measure in Obama health law

Former GOP Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.) urged fellow Republicans Wednesday to embrace the insurance exchanges that are central to President Obama's signature healthcare reform law.

Republicans in both chambers are dead-set on repealing the whole of the law, and a growing list of GOP governors is refusing to adopt central provisions, including the insurance exchanges.

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But Frist, a prominent heart transplant surgeon who was Senate majority leader from 2003 through 2006, said that's a mistake. The exchanges, he wrote in an op-ed in The Week magazine, are "perhaps the most innovative, market-driven, and ultimately constructive part of the law."

"Originally a Republican idea, the state insurance exchanges ... will offer a menu of private insurance plans to pick and choose from, all with a required set of minimum benefits, to those without employer-sponsored health insurance," he wrote.

The exchanges are estimated to cover 16 million uninsured Americans — roughly half of the number of uninsured folks expected to gain coverage under the law, Frist noted.

And unlike the broad expansion of Medicaid, which covers roughly the other half, "these Americans will gain private insurance, and can choose the plan that's right for them," he added. 

"Helping more Americans find and compare the private insurance they need and can afford," Frist wrote, "should be an easy principle both political parties agree on." 

So far, however, that hasn't been the case. 

House Republicans last week voted for a second time this Congress to repeal the entire reform law, including the state-based exchanges. And Republican lawmakers in states as diverse as Texas, Florida, Kentucky and Louisiana have vowed to fight the adoption of the exchanges.

"I stand proudly with the growing chorus of governors who reject the Obamacare power grab," Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) announced earlier this month. "Neither a 'state' exchange nor the expansion of Medicaid under this program would result in better 'patient protection' or in more 'affordable care.' They would only make Texas a mere appendage of the federal government when it comes to health care."

Frist disagrees, arguing that the exchanges "represent the federalist ideal of states as 'laboratories for democracy.' "

The Tennessee Republican knows something about the business side of getting more patients insured. Frist's family founded the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) — among the largest private hospital chains in the world — earning the former senator an enormous fortune.

Shares in HCA surged last month after the Supreme Court upheld the individual insurance mandate.