WASHINGTON – Nearly 40 million Americans uninsured, drug costs rising, doctors dropping out of Medicare.
Real problems that Republicans are hoping the first doctor/incoming Senate majority leader can fix during the next legislative session -- before health care issues become a liability for the White House.
And that new Republican leader, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, has a plan that is backed by the White House. It's called medical savings accounts and it allows individuals to set aside money tax-free and roll it over every year to pay everyday medical expenses. The accounts are then combined with a less expensive catastrophic health plan to protect the person from massive, unexpected health bills.
"There is enthusiasm coming from the White House, as well as from Congress as well. The political stars are aligning into position, and I think something will be done when they get back," said Karen Kerrigan, chairwoman of the Archer MSA Coalition/Small Business Survival Committee.
In his first appearance as the Senate Republican leader, Frist, the first doctor in the Senate in 50 years and a voice on health care issues since his first election in 1994, compared the responsibilities of a heart transplant surgeon to those of his new post.
"I've been given responsibility before, as a physician, to listen, to diagnose, to treat, to heal. Until today, I've always regarded my most profound professional responsibility in my professional life the blessing I had to hold in my hands the human heart, recognizing all its glory and all its potential, and then technically seating it into the chest of a dying woman to give her life and a future she would not otherwise have. A few moments ago, my colleagues gave me a responsibility equal to that -- some would even say a heavier one," he said.
In that speech, Frist hit all the health care hot buttons, including Medicare reform and prescription drug coverage for seniors, but gave special emphasis to millions of Americans with no health coverage.
"We need to focus on the uninsured, and those who suffer from health care disparities that we so inadequately addressed in the past, but which I saw every day, working in a hospital for eight or nine years just several blocks from here," he said at his Nashville district office.
The reference harkened back to Clinton-care, an attempt to cover all Americans by forcing employers to pay for universal insurance coverage.
According to the latest data, the number of uninsured has been rising since Clinton's health care reform proposals were so roundly defeated. In the year 2000, the number of adults with no health care was 31.5 million. The number of children with no coverage was 6.3 million. That's the latest data available, the highest numbers since 1998 and nearly the highest number ever.
While Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts still supports this approach, many other Democrats are dubious and have yet to settle on a remedy when summarizing health issues in need of swift action. The Senate's Democratic leader didn't even mention the uninsured last month during one of his last press briefings as the majority leader.
"I'd love to see us take up prescription drugs, and I bet we do. I'd love to see us deal with lower prescription drug costs with the generic, and I hope we do and a patients' bill of rights," said Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Frist thinks an expansion of the MSA's, which have been in existence since 1996 but not widely publicized, is the way to go. Right now, the accounts are legal on a trial basis but the government will only allow 750,000.
However, so far only 100,000 accounts have been created. Critics say that's proof that the public doesn't want them.
"Are MSA's for everyone? Will they solve the entire health care crisis? No," Kerrigan said. "But we believe that giving consumers control of their healthcare -- and these are people who are healthy; these are people who are unhealthy -- will make the health care system more responsive to everyone."
The White House is expected to push hard this year to make medical savings accounts available to everyone. Proponents believe that will encourage insurers to offer more accounts, something they haven't done because only 650,000 can now be sold.
As for Democrats, Fox News has learned that Kennedy will deliver a major speech on health policy just before the president's State of the Union address and will call for universal health care coverage on a model very similar to that proposed by Clinton and rejected by a Democratic Congress nearly a decade ago.
Fox News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.