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MONDAY, JUNE 20, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Can Clinton, Frist succeed as a team on health care?

Hillary Clinton and Bill Frist make an interesting team in promoting health-care reform.

When she was first lady, the New York Democratic senator tried and failed to reform the nation's health-care system. If she had pulled it off, it might have been the signal accomplishment of Bill Clinton's administration. Blame the failure partly on special interests whose fortunes were in jeopardy. They managed to portray the Clinton plan as too bureaucratic and complicated. And maybe it was.

Senate Majority Leader Frist, R-Tennessee, is a physician. He knows medicine as only a practitioner can.

Both senators could become candidates for president, even the nominees of opposing parties, as early as 2008. So when they come together to write and promote legislation, this suggests two things: (1) It addresses a need that crosses party lines; (2) they think voters of both parties will appreciate the benefits.

Their bill would try to help the medical community to move its record-keeping technology into the 21st century. Technological advances in diagnosis and treatment of illnesses have been outstanding, but too much of the industry still relies on paper medical histories of patients. It ought to be moving toward electronic records that are available anytime, anywhere.

Sen. Frist described a hypothetical emergency in a rural hospital where a patient appears to have had a heart attack. "Every moment counts when their medical record is not there. (Medical) history, allergies ... Under our bill, we lower the cost of health care and limit errors and make the records available to the hospital, the patient and the physician."

The health-care industry is moving toward such a system, but the senators say what's lacking is standards so that different computer systems can communicate with one another. Also, Sen. Clinton says lawmakers must ensure that records will be secure and confidential.

This is a sensible role for government to fill, stepping in on behalf of patients to make sure competing vendors cooperate. Let's hope Congress can do it in a way that speeds up the conversion to electronic records rather than slowing it down with red tape.

The bill is also a political test for both senators: Can each cooperate with the other party to improve health care in this narrow sense? The answer will suggest how successfully they might deal, as president, with broader reform.

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