CHICAGO (AP) — Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday the nation has never been closer to substantial health care overhaul despite “all the shouting and all the political turmoil” of recent weeks.

Biden said restraining costs and insuring more people should unite fiscal conservatives and advocates for the poor behind the Obama administration’s efforts to fix what Biden called a broken system.

If he wanted to hear about troubles in health care, he and Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius came to the right place. They got an earful from doctors and nurses attending a round-table discussion at a struggling nonprofit hospital serving the urban poor on Chicago’s West Side.

A nurse said she worries about violent emergency room patients who throw bedpans and spit at her. A doctor from another hospital said she can’t refer patients to dietitians to prevent diabetes because insurance won’t pay for it. And a health researcher said black Chicagoans die needlessly because they are disadvantaged and uninsured.

Biden announced nearly $1.2 billion in grants to help the nation’s hospitals and doctors put electronic health records to use. The grants will be funded by the $787 billion economic stimulus plan.

Storing patient data electronically can improve efficiency and prevent medical errors, Biden said, adding he’s tired of being handed paper forms to fill out every time he goes to the doctor.

“I get handed one more clipboard I feel like clanging somebody on the head,” Biden said, prompting laughter from about 60 health care professionals in the audience. “How many times do I have to fill out, yeah, I had asthma, yeah, I had two craniotomies?”

Biden sidestepped the question of whether a public insurance option should be part of a final health care bill. He made only passing reference to foes who’ve challenged supporters of overhaul with charges of a government takeover.

“With all the shouting and all the political turmoil on this issue, I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to being able to do something substantial” to improve health care, Biden said.

President Barack Obama has made expanding insurance coverage and restraining health care costs his top domestic priority. But he’s lost ground on the issue in opinion polls and Democrats in Congress are preparing to go it alone on legislation although bipartisan talks continue in the Senate.

Thursday’s event took place not at a flourishing medical center but at Mount Sinai Hospital, where only 7 percent of the hospital’s patients have private insurance. The rest are covered by government programs or are uninsured. In August, the hospital had only 1.42 days of cash on hand, hospitals leaders said. Its bad debt, the bills left unpaid by patients, was $62.3 million last year.

Mount Sinai nurse Chere Hamilton, among the Chicago health care workers invited to speak during Biden’s round-table, said the hospital’s emergency room is “a very, very violent place.”

“We’re spit at. We’re swung at. We’re kicked,” Hamilton said. “We have urinals thrown at us. We have bedpans thrown at us.”

Biden responded: “You’re doing God’s work.”

Biden and Sebelius both talked about their aging parents, Biden about his 92-year-old mother’s broken hip and how her care was coordinated; Sebelius, who speculated her 88-year-old father couldn’t remember all his medications, said an electronic record would help his doctors get it straight.

Of the stimulus money set aside for health information, $598 million would establish centers to help hospitals and clinics with technical aspects of choosing systems. Another $564 million would be set aside to help hospitals share patients’ information.

After the Chicago meeting, Mount Sinai Chief Information Officer Peter Ingram said the grants are good news for his hospital.

“We are part way along the journey” in transferring to computer records, Ingram said. “We need all the help we can get in implementation.”

Sebelius plans to visit Ohio State University Medical Center on Friday to discuss electronic medical records there.

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