President Donald Trump’s allegation at Tuesday’s debate that former Vice President Joe Biden’s policies while in office killed hundreds of thousands veterans rests on a five-year-old inspector general report that found widespread problems with Veterans Affairs record keeping but does not directly connect deaths to delayed care from department officials.
The report — compiled in the wake of the 2014 VA wait time scandal where numerous hospital administrators were found to cover up wait times at their medical centers — drew headlines at the time as another sign of incompetence and mismanagement at the embattled department.
On Tuesday, Trump charged that Biden’s actions while in office resulted in “308,000 military people dying because you couldn’t provide them proper healthcare in the military.” He later said that VA “was a mess under (Biden), 308,000 people died because they didn’t have proper health care.”
Biden disputed both allegations. Trump’s campaign team tweeted out news coverage of the 2015 report in support of the president’s attack just minutes after the debate remarks.
In the report, the VA Inspector General looked into reports of nearly 900,000 pending enrollment applications within the department’s health care system as of September 2014. However, investigators “could not reliably determine how many pending records existed as a result of applications for health care benefits.”
That’s because some records were imported from earlier department records systems, while others involved individuals who may have received appointments but not recorded properly in the system.
In one case, a veteran who died in 1988 was listed as awaiting enrollment approval until January 2015. In another, a non-veteran who received emergency care at a VA hospital was listed as awaiting enrollment approval for 15 years, even though the patient was never eligible to enroll.
Investigators found that at the time of the report, more than 307,000 pending enrollment records were for individuals already reported deceased by the Social Security Administration.
“However, due to the data weaknesses identified in (the investigation), we cannot determine specifically how many pending Enrollment System records represent veterans who applied for health care benefits or when they may have applied,” the report states.
For example, one veteran in that group who appeared to have died waiting for care was shown applying for VA enrollment for the first time in 2009, and failing to receive any help for the next five years. However, the patient actually died in 1993.
Investigators blasted VA’s records systems at the time as “generally unreliable for monitoring, reporting on the status of health care enrollments, and making decisions regarding overall processing timeliness.” In response, VA officials promised to overhaul their records systems and put in place better enrollment oversight procedures.
Trump’s administration has begun even more expansive reforms to the VA’s electronic health records, launching a $16-billion, decade-long effort in 2017 to connect military medical records with the VA system and provide seamless digital files throughout servicemembers lives.
The 2015 report is available on the VA Inspector General’s web site.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.