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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Fiorina’s Unsupported Claim about VA Deaths

Carly Fiorina on several occasions has said 307,000 veterans have died while waiting for care from the Veterans Health Administration. In one instance, she said all of those veterans “died in the last year,” citing a recent inspector general’s report. But that’s not what the report says.

The VA Office of the Inspector General report said 307,173 of nearly 867,000 pending VA applications belonged to individuals who died. But poor record-keeping made it impossible to say how many of them died while waiting for care or how many of them even applied for care.

The report also said 84 percent of those who died, or 258,367 individuals, died more than four years ago — not last year.

Fiorina, a Republican candidate for president, has made the VA report a staple of her recent speeches. At the National Federation of Republican Women Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, on Sept. 11, Fiorina said that “just last month, we got a report that 307,000 veterans have died waiting for an appointment.”

Similarly, she told an audience at the Stretch Kennedy annual picnic in New Hampshire on Sept. 12 that “307,000 veterans had died in the last year waiting for health care.”

Fiorina repeated the claim twice during CNN’s prime-time GOP debate on Sept. 16. After the debate, a viewer, and a self-proclaimed veteran, asked us to check Fiorina’s claim.

On Sept. 2, the VA Office of the Inspector General released a report titled “Veterans Health Administration: Review of Alleged Mismanagement at the Health Eligibility Center.” The report addressed four questions about the eligibility center, including an allegation first reported by the Atlanta Journal Constitution last year that more than 47,000 veterans died while their applications were still pending.

The IG report said an application would be marked as pending if “qualifying evidence,” such as evidence of military standing or income status, “is incomplete or unavailable.” A final enrollment decision cannot be made until that information is obtained.

According to the report, the VA OIG found that 307,173 of the nearly 867,000 applications with “pending” status in the enrollment system as of Sept. 30, 2014, belonged to individuals who were reported deceased by the Social Security Administration.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of them died while waiting for health care, as Fiorina claimed.

The VA OIG report said more than once that the exact number of veterans in the enrollment system (ES) seeking health benefits could not be determined.

VA OIG, Sept. 2: We substantiated the first allegation that ES had about 867,000 pending records as of September 30, 2014. These ES records were coded as pending because they had not reached a final determination status. However, due to the data limitations, we could not reliably determine how many records were associated with actual applications for enrollment. The number of pending records in ES was overstated and did not necessarily represent veterans actively seeking enrollment in VA health care.

It also said this about the records of deceased veterans:

VA OIG, Sept. 2: We substantiated the second allegation that pending ES records included entries for individuals reported to be deceased. As of September 2014, more than 307,000 pending ES records, or about 35 percent of all pending records, were for individuals reported as deceased by the Social Security Administration. However, due to data limitations, we could not determine specifically how many pending ES records represent veterans who applied for health care benefits.

The report explained that problems with the enrollment system — which contains more than 22 million records — made it difficult to determine the number of pending applications belonging to veterans applying for care.

“ES data is not suitable to monitor the performance of application processing because of long-standing weaknesses in the definition, collection, and management of veteran enrollment data,” the report said.

For example, more than half of the pending applications did not include a date, making the system “unreliable for monitoring timeliness or determining if a record represents a veteran’s intent to apply for VA health care.”

Also, the OIG found that 84 percent of the deceased individuals with pending applications died more than four years ago. In some cases, deceased individuals with a “pending” application died long before 1998, when the VA established its current enrollment database.

The report didn’t say how many of them died last year. But the report does say that 30,706, or 10 percent, died within the last two years — far fewer than the 307,000 that Fiorina claimed, in one of her speeches, had died waiting for care last year.

Fiorina’s campaign forwarded us news accounts about the IG report, but even those do not support her claim.

A Sept. 3 CNN story sent to us by her campaign said, “The inspector general said due to limitations in the system’s data, the number of records did not necessarily represent veterans actively seeking enrollment in VA health care.”

Another problem with the claim made by Fiorina is that the pending applications in the system may not all belong to veterans.

According to the report, “ES contains records of enrollment applicants and any patient who has had an encounter with VA, including applicants whose military service has not been confirmed, qualified family members, employees participating in the employee health program, or patients receiving humanitarian care.”

In addition, the report said a number of the pending records could belong to veterans who never applied for health care. That was the result of millions of previously un-entered records being added to the enrollment system in December 2013.

“This release caused veterans who never sought care or applied for enrollment since the enrollment program was enacted into law to have their information transmitted to ES as pending records,” the report said.

In conclusion, the report said, “the data integrity problems render the ES database virtually unreliable to make decisions regarding overall processing timeliness or to accurately report category totals for ES records.”

Catherine Gromek, a spokeswoman for the VA OIG, told FactCheck.org that includes reporting on “how many veterans submitted applications for health care or died with a record in a pending status.”

— D’Angelo Gore