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U.S. scales back goal on veterans' health records with an eye on costs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government is ditching ambitious plans to create a single computer system for troops and military veterans to track their health records, opting instead for a more modest, less costly plan that officials said will deliver on goals faster.

The decision announced on Tuesday is complicated and technical but goes to the core of President Barack Obama's goal to create a smooth transition for troops as they leave the military after 11 years of war and seek care at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The two bureaucracies - the largest in the U.S. government - still lack a shared electronic medical health record for troops, many of whom have complex injuries and take multiple medications. A new system, built from the ground up to fix the problem, was not going to be fully ready until 2017.

"It's frustrating. It's been inefficient for service members to have to hand-deliver records from one system to another when they get out of the military," said Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. "It doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense."

Panetta and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the new plan would use existing computer systems - which ones were unclear - to start delivering by January next year, when troops and veterans will be able to download health data in a standardized format both departments can use.

In practical terms, that means information - like details on medications, allergies, lab tests and clinical notes - will be readable by both the VA and military doctors in 2014.

"This is a struggle that has gone on for a long number of years. Some have argued that we should build a perfect system," Panetta said. "But for the first time, both DOD and VA have come together to say we can get this done, we can get it done in an effective way that does the job."

Officials told reporters the move would save hundreds of millions of dollars. The price tag of the previous system had been estimated at some $4 billion.

Initial reaction was negative, with Senator Patty Murray of Washington, an advocate for veterans issues in Congress, saying she was disappointed the departments were "backing away from a truly seamless medical records system."

She estimated that $1 billion had been spent on the initiative so far.

"I intend to follow-up with both secretaries to find out why this decision was made," she said in a statement.

The officials did not disclose how much had been spent developing the new system but stressed that much of that research would still be used, for example in creating a standardized language for prescription medications and laboratory work.

Panetta stressed the practicality of the move.

"This approach is affordable. It's achievable," Panetta said.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Christopher Wilson and Stacey Joyce)

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