Vice President Joe Biden side stepped any discussion on the heated debate on whether a public option insurance plan should be part of health care reform during a visit to Chicago and a West Side hospital last Thursday.

Instead, Biden pitched $1.2 billion in stimulus money to help hospitals and doctors computerized medical record during a roundtable discussion at Mt. Sinai Hospital last week.

But one hospital official contends the public option wouldn’t be an adequate safety to provide decent health care to the nation’s 47 million uninsured and under insured. Dr. Steve Whitman, director of Mt. Sinai Urban Health Institute, called the public option “inadequate and weak,” because it may leave too many people without health insurance.

He contends the public option will create a two-tier health insurance system where individuals would have insurance, but still may not have access to quality care. Whitman explained a single-payer health system similar to Medicare would provide health insurance for all.

“It is not just simply a matter of insurance,” Whitman said, noting that the public option is not universal health care. “Having insurance is not the same as having access to health care and having access to health care is not the same thing as having quality health care.

“What you need is all of that together,” he added. “You need insurance, access and high quality because without all three of those, what you have is nothing.”

The West Side hospital has been a stalwart in providing care for an indigent population. Sixty percent of the hospital’s patients are on Medicaid while 13 percent are uninsured. Additionally, one in four emergency room patients have no insurance and two out of five have no primary doctor.

“When we see people screaming and yelling about expenses and protesting mindlessly that this plan is going to be expensive, no one is thinking about what the outcomes are going to be; what benefits we are going to reap from this kind of prevention,” Whitman said.

While Biden’s Chicago visit was not to debate public option versus non public option, he noted that health care reform is needed. He said “it was not right” for individuals to be denied coverage because they have pre-existing conditions or denied medical treatment because of a cap on their policy. He called that rationing.

“No longer will health insurance companies get to pick and chose who they cover and who they won’t cover,” said Biden, who appeared in Chicago with Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Reforming health care also includes modernizing medical health records. Biden noted billions of dollars can be saved in unnecessary medical procedures if doctors and hospitals had patients’ information at their finger tips. Medical treatment, he added, could be administered more efficiently if doctors knew the medical history of their patients. Computerized medical records, Biden explained, could shorten wait times, provide the right medical treatment and test, while doing it more efficiently and saving money.

Funding from the $1.2 billion will come in the form of grants to establish regional centers that would provide technical assistance in selecting and using electronic medical record systems. States would receive funds to set up infrastructure or networks to share medical information. Doctors and hospitals would also receive direct funding to help conversion from paper to electronic data.

As a geriatrician with Northwestern Hospital Dr. June McKoy works with older patients who have lengthy medical histories. She said older individuals often take several medications and knowing what they are on can prevent prescribing a drug that may have deadly consequences. Having computerized medical records, McKoy explained, is about keeping patients safe and reducing costs associated with medical mishaps.

“Electronic medical records system really save lives because of the ability to communicate across the whole spectrum of specialties and understanding what kind of care your patients are getting,” she said.

Mt. Sinai nurse Chere Hamilton said having quick and easy access to patient histories takes the guess work out of their jobs. McKoy said often patients are unable to give a medical history and doctors and nurses have to take physical cues, like scars, from the body to determine what, if any, medical treatment a patient may have had.

“If he has a scar here, he had his appendix taken out,” she said. “We go through the whole body. It would be a lot better if we had a computer system where we can go in and punch the patient in and find out what is wrong and go from there.”

Improved patient care is what Mt. Sinai’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jack E. Garon believes an electronic medical records system would provide. Since the hospital treats a very indigent population who may receive care at several hospitals, electronic medical records would allow doctors to share information across institutions.

“When this system is in place, we will be able to pull up health care records from anywhere instantaneously,” Garon said. “We won’t have to reinvent the wheel.”