Open Access Open Badges Research

Accuracy and completeness of mortality data in the Department of Veterans Affairs

Min-Woong Sohn12*, Noreen Arnold3, Charles Maynard4 and Denise M Hynes135

Author Affiliations

1 Midwest Center for Health Services and Policy Research, 5th Avenue and Roosevelt Road, Bldg 1, Room B259 (151H), Hines, IL 60141, USA

2 Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, 676 N. St. Clair Suite 200, Chicago, IL 60611, USA

3 Veterans Affairs Information Resource Center, 5th Avenue and Roosevelt Road, Bldg 1, Room C305 (151V), Hines, IL 60141, USA

4 Epidemiologic Research and Information Center, Department of Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System, 1660 S. Columbian Way, Seattle, WA 98108, USA

5 Loyola University Chicago, Maywood, IL 60153, USA

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Population Health Metrics 2006, 4:2  doi:10.1186/1478-7954-4-2

Published: 10 April 2006



One of the national mortality databases in the U.S. is the Beneficiary Identification and Record Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File that contains death dates of those who have received any benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The completeness of this database was shown to vary widely from cohort to cohort in previous studies. Three other sources of death dates are available in the VA that can complement the BIRLS Death File. The objective of this study is to evaluate the completeness and accuracy of death dates in the four sources available in the VA and to examine whether these four sources can be combined into a database with improved completeness and accuracy.


A random sample of 3,000 was drawn from 8.3 million veterans who received benefits from the VA between 1997 and 1999 and were alive on January 1, 1999 according to at least one source. Death dates found in BIRLS Death File, Medical SAS Inpatient Datasets, Medicare Vital Status, and Social Security Administration (SSA) Death Master File were compared with dates obtained from the National Death Index. A combined dataset from these sources was also compared with National Death Index dates.


Compared with the National Death Index, sensitivity (or the percentage of death dates correctly recorded in a source) was 77.4% for BIRLS Death File, 12.0% for Medical SAS Inpatient Datasets, 83.2% for Medicare Vital Status, and 92.1% for SSA Death Master File. Over 95% of death dates in these sources agreed exactly with dates from the National Death Index. Death dates in the combined dataset demonstrated 98.3% sensitivity and 97.6% exact agreement with dates from the National Death Index.


The BIRLS Death File is not an adequate source of mortality data for the VA population due to incompleteness. When the four sources of mortality data are carefully combined, the resulting dataset can provide more timely data for death ascertainment than the National Death Index and has comparable accuracy and completeness.