Presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses during the CNBC Republican Presidential Debate at the University of Colorado’s Coors Events Center on Oct. 28 in Boulder. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“The current state of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is absolutely unacceptable. Over 300,000 veterans died waiting for care. Corruption and incompetence were excused. Politicians in Washington have done too little too slowly to fix it. This situation can never happen again, and when Donald J. Trump is president, it will be fixed — fast.”

— Businessman Donald Trump, VA policy proposal

A reader pointed us to Trump’s proposal on his campaign Web site, which repeated an inaccurate figure The Fact Checker wrote about in September 2015. Carly Fiorina had inaccurately claimed twice during the GOP debate on CNN that 307,000 veterans had died waiting for health care. This figure is significantly higher than previous estimates that “dozens” of veterans had died waiting for health care in an Arizona VA facility.

In fact, Fiorina repeated the claim again during the Nov. 14 Florida Sunshine Summit: “It is a stain on our nation’s honor when we learn that 307,000 veterans died before they had access to health care.”

This is a widely misreported statistic that first began circulating after a Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General report released Sept. 2, 2015, and subsequent news coverage. Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative veterans advocacy group, cited an article quoting this figure in a political ad released this month. But the difference is that the group’s ad quotes a headline that says 307,000 “may” have died waiting for care, versus Trump’s statement (and Fiorina’s references, for that matter) that states the figure as a direct fact.

It’s time for a refresher.

The Facts

The VA’s inspector general investigated allegations of mismanagement in processing health-care applications at the Veterans Health Administration’s Health Eligibility Center, after whistleblowers told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that there was an application backlog. The center is the VA’s “central authority for eligibility and enrollment processing activities,” and maintains about 22.3 million records in its system.

Investigators found there were about 867,000 records in a “pending” status, meaning the veteran applied for enrollment but the VA needed additional information (often financial) before approving the veteran for benefits. Of those records, 307,173 were for people who were reported as deceased by the Social Security Administration.

And just like that, headlines spread throughout news articles that more than 300,000 veterans died waiting for care. Except that’s not really what that 307,173 figure represents.

The problem is that this database includes records of veterans who died before the health-care enrollment process began in 1998. There also are records of veterans who never sought care from the VA, because millions of records from another VA data source were entered into the system in December 2013.

The application dates do not show in the system, so there’s no way to tell which records are associated with veterans who were applying for health-care benefits.

While the center is the hub for all eligibility and enrollment processing, the database includes non-health-care data. For example, the system keeps records of disability benefits, home loans, veterans’ family members who qualify to receive health care, employees participating in the employee health program, patients receiving humanitarian care and patients whose military service was not confirmed. The VA’s OIG officials could not identify what proportion of the 22.3 million records in the system were not related to health-care enrollment.

In short, investigators found significant weaknesses in the data system that render the health enrollment database “virtually unreliable.” Still, the report does not support the claim that more than 300,000 veterans died waiting for care.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to our requests for comment.

The Pinocchio Test

There were about 307,000 records of veterans who were marked as “pending” in the health-care database, who had already died, according to their Social Security records. But given all the limitations in the database, it’s impossible to know whether those veterans had died before or after the VA began its health-care enrollment system, or whether they had applied for health care.

It is possible that all 307,173 veterans applied for health care. But that’s an absolute worst-case scenario, and the OIG said it could not confirm how many veterans with “pending” statuses had applied for health care.

It’s easy to throw out jarring figures in relation to access-to-care problems at the VA. But this one is not accurate. When Fiorina used it, we gave her the benefit of doubt because there were so many misconstrued reports in media coverage that could have led her to believe this was a legitimate figure. But when a candidate publishes a white paper or policy proposal, it’s incumbent on them to check the facts. We’re bumping this rating to a Three.

Three Pinocchios

 


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