Donald Trump came to the U.S. Navy stronghold of Norfolk on Halloween afternoon to announce his plan to fix the "disaster" at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The current state of the Department of Veterans Affairs is absolutely unacceptable," Trump said at a rally in front of the retired battleship USS Wisconsin. "Over 300,000 - and this is hard to believe, and it’s actually much more than that now - over 300,000 veterans died waiting for care."
We decided to check Trump’s claim, which also has been made by Carly Fiorina, one of his rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to our request for more information, but it’s a safe bet that his statement was based on a Sept. 2 report by the VA’s Office of Inspector General that denounced the agency’s record-keeping system as "inadequate."
The inspector general’s investigation, as noted by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker in September, was triggered by whistleblower complaints about backlogs in providing services at the VA. The probe focused on operations at the agency’s Health Eligibility Center, which is described as the "authoritative system for veterans’ health enrollment and eligibility information." It holds about 22.3 million records.
The report found that as of Sept. 30, 2014, 866,879 records were listed as "pending," a status given to VA applications that are incomplete - usually because they lack financial information. Of those records, 307,173 pertained to individuals who had been reported dead by the Social Security Administration.
So there’s a basis for Trump’s number, but the figure is very complex. The report says the VA’s record-keeping was so shoddy that there’s no way of knowing how many of the 307,000 actually were waiting to be enrolled for VA health care when they died.
The agency’s enrollment database was started in 1998 and includes pending files on veterans who died before that year, although the report does not say how many. The inspector general found, for example, that one veteran who died in 1988 still was listed with a pending VA application in 2014.
Adding to the complication is that in 2013, the agency added into the entry center’s database "millions" of records from other arms of the VA. Many of these records ended up in the pending file, according to the report, but software glitches made it impossible for investigators to determine how many of the records pertained to veterans seeking health services.
You have to remember that the VA provides many services, including home loans and disability payments. In some cases, it provides health care to family members of veterans; patients whose military service has not been confirmed; and people receiving humanitarian care.
The report also notes that some of the pending files pertain to people inquiring about services rather than actually applying for them. The VA "does not have a reliable method to distinguish which enrollment records were created in response to an enrollment application or records entered into (the database) by actions other than enrollment," the report says.
Making matters worse, about 55 percent of the pending files are missing contact dates with the VA. The omissions make the database "unreliable for monitoring timeliness or determine if a record represents a veteran’s intent to apply for VA health care," according to the report.
The inspector general concluded, "Most of the pending records are old and inactive and many of them were misclassified."
"Over 300,000 veterans have died waiting for care," Trump said in a Norfolk speech in which he promised to overhaul the VA.
Trump offered the most dire possible interpretation of a scathing report on VA record-keeping and went well beyond what the inspector general was able to conclude.
The report found that 307,173 dead people were listed last year on a VA database as having pending status with the agency. But shabby records make a detailed dissection of that number impossible. Investigators said that some of those people were not veterans; not all of them were seeking health care or necessarily any VA service; and some of them died before 1998, when the database began.
No doubt, the VA is ripe for criticism. But Trump’s statement takes liberty with the facts, and we rate it Mostly False.