Michael Collins
March 14, 2008
Scripps Howard News Service

It was a homecoming of sorts: Bill Frist's first time back before Congress since he retired from the U.S. Senate more than a year ago. But more importantly, Frist's return to Capitol Hill on Thursday was a carefully orchestrated campaign to draw attention to a moral and humanitarian concern: reducing child mortality around the world.

"I can think of no more important issue to address," the former Senate Republican leader said.

Frist, a surgeon who represented Tennessee in the Senate for 12 years, is leading Save the Children's effort to increase funding for medical care to children in developing countries. The campaign's goal is to help 10 million children who otherwise might die from preventable and treatable illnesses reach their 5th birthdays.

"I know these global health issues seem daunting," he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health.

However, he said, 6 million children a year could be saved from certain death if they received basic health care, such as immunizations, antibiotics and vitamin A supplements.

Save the Children is asking Congress to approve the Global Child Survival Act, which would greatly increase funding for health care for women and children around the world. Under the legislation, funding for the program would jump from $450 million in 2008 to $900 million in 2009 and would reach $1.6 billion by 2012.

The proposal already has cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is awaiting action by the full chamber. In the House, the bill is awaiting a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

During his appearance before the subcommittee and at a press briefing later, Frist argued that reducing child mortality is a matter of national security as much as a humanitarian issue.

Health diplomacy is "a currency for peace," he said, because it undermines anti-American propaganda by showing that Americans are compassionate. People don't want to go to war with someone who has saved their children, he said.

Afterward, Frist dodged questions about whether he's interested in running for vice president with Republican presidential nominee John McCain or whether he intends to run for Tennessee governor in 2010. His focus right now, he said, is on saving children.

And how did it feel to be back on his old stomping grounds?

Frist noted that his appearance on Capitol Hill came as the Senate was in the midst of a long series of votes. If he were still the Republican leader, "I know exactly what I would be doing," he said.

"I would be sitting up in the cloak room, coordinating, making decisions, (and) at the end of the day, pretty much knowing I would be (back) where I started," he said.

In his new role as global health-care advocate, "by spending an hour here, hopefully I can have an impact on moving humanity forward," he said. "And then I get to go home and sleep in my own bed."