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U.S. still pursuing unified health record for soldiers, vets

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The government is still working toward creating a unified electronic health record for troops and veterans, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress on Thursday, two days after announcing a change in the approach criticized by lawmakers.

The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs said on Tuesday they were going to focus on integrating VA and Defense Department data using existing computer systems, rather than a previous plan to create a single, $4 billion computer system from scratch by 2017.

Health records of military personnel are not automatically transferred to the VA once those personnel leave active duty and enter the VA healthcare system.

Officials said Tuesday's revised plan would save hundreds of millions of dollars and allow the Pentagon and the VA to reach goals faster, which would mean veterans and troops could start downloading key health data in standardized formats that both departments can use by next January.

But the news stoked concern in Congress, with lawmakers saying the Pentagon and VA were changing course.

"The decision by DOD and VA to turn their backs on a truly integrated electronic health record system is deeply troubling," said Jeff Miller, the Republican head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

Panetta told lawmakers during a Senate hearing Thursday that "our intent is obviously to continue working on" creating a unified health record.

"But what we wanted to do was to create this inter-operability sooner and on a faster track so we could provide the information doctors need in order to be able to create some symmetry between Defense and the Veterans Administration," Panetta said.

A U.S. defense official, commenting after Thursday's hearing, told Reuters that although the VA and Pentagon systems would become increasingly integrated in order to eventually create a single unified record, plans to create a single system from the ground up had indeed been scrapped.

But the new approach would deliver on key goals faster, and at less cost, the official stressed, speaking on condition of anonymity.

After 11 years of war, the goal of creating a single health record goes to the core of President Barack Obama's goal to create a smooth transition for troops as they leave the military and seek healthcare through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Many veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars have complex injuries and take multiple medications and Panetta said the lack of a shared record has been 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," Panetta said on Tuesday. "It doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense."

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Bill Trott)

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