President Bush traveled to Baltimore's veterans hospital yesterday to promote his plan to computerize Americans' health records, seizing a chance to promote a popular idea at a time when the presidential race is entering a particularly nasty phase.
In his fourth visit to the Baltimore area as president, Bush met with about 140 physicians and veterans to advance his proposal to use information technology to cut costs, reduce medical errors and improve care.
"Health care will be better, the costs will go down, the quality will go up, and there's no telling what other benefits will inure to our society" once most Americans have electronically accessible medical records, he said of his plan, which he envisions taking effect over the next decade.
Sitting on a stool holding a microphone, Bush held a 37-minute staged chat in an auditorium at the medical center, quizzing two of his Cabinet officials and two Baltimore health leaders about the benefits of electronic health records.
Sharing the stage to help promote the plan were Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services, and Anthony J. Principi, veterans affairs secretary, as well as Dennis H. Smith, director of the Maryland VA Medical System, and Marlene Miller, director of quality and safety initiatives at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, was among those in the audience, as was Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat.
Later in the day, Bush issued an executive order creating a new post at the Department of Health and Human Services for an official who would develop and coordinate a system of computerized health records.
Though computerizing medical information has broad bipartisan support, that didn't stop Sen. John Kerry's campaign from dispatching its sizable veterans contingent to discredit Bush's idea and accuse him of having neglected veterans during three years in office.
Kerry has criticized Bush for proposing cuts in veterans' health programs. Yesterday, his campaign released a list of actions the president has taken that Kerry's aides said showed he can't be trusted by veterans.
"The president's covering up his failures and his broken promises to America's veterans," said former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a Vietnam War veteran and triple amputee who has been a leading spokesman for pro-Kerry veterans.
As for the electronic health records proposal, Cleland said, Bush's plan has already "failed miserably."
Cleland pointed to the failure of a new $472 million computer system at the Bay Pines veterans medical center in St. Petersburg, Fla., as evidence of the administration's poor record of using technology to improve health care. Principi apologized to Congress this month for the troubled Bay Pines computer system, which was supposed to help with the hospital's accounting and supply tracking. Instead, it ended up delaying surgeries and compromising veterans' care.
For Bush, the quick visit to Baltimore - he was on the ground for less than 90 minutes, more than 20 of which was spent hurtling through the city in his motorcade - provided a brief escape from the rancor of an intensifying campaign.
It came during a week when the Bush and Kerry campaigns have traded harsh attacks about the two men's military service during the Vietnam War. Bush aides are questioning Kerry's conduct after the war, including whether he threw away his medals and ribbons during anti-war protests. Kerry has questioned whether Bush avoided National Guard duty during the war.
"I think a lot of veterans are going to be very angry at a president who can't account for his own service in the National Guard, and a vice president who got every deferment in the world," Kerry said yesterday.
Bush's Baltimore stop also came as the death toll mounted in Iraq. The number of U.S. troops killed this month, 115, equals the number killed during the war's initial combat phase.
Still, the president spent most of his time speaking and asking questions - sometimes interrupting the experts flanking him on stage - about the health care technology initiative. The health care industry has lagged far behind other sectors in using information technology, partly because of the fragmented nature of the health care system.
"On the research side, we're the best - we're coming up with more innovative ways to saves lives and to treat patients," Bush said. "But when you think about the providers' side, we're kind of still in the buggy era."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, suggested that Bush would have to invest far more than the $100 million in health information technology he has requested for 2005 if a system of electronic health records is to become a reality. "President Bush's comments today are just another empty campaign pledge and do not represent a serious commitment to improving health care and reigning in costs in Maryland and across the country," Hoyer said in a statement.
Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel S. Ehrlich, greeted Bush as his helicopter touched down on the lawn at Fort McHenry. A crowd dressed in hospital greens and lab coats stood waving as the president's limousine pulled up to the medical center downtown. A few anti-Bush veterans were on hand, one of them holding a sign reading, "Troops suffer and die for Bush's lies."
Sun staff writers Scott Calvert and Julie Bell contributed to this article.