The Researcher's Guide to VA Data

VA Information Resource Center


BIRLS Death File

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The Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem (BIRLS) Death File is an extract of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) BIRLS database. The BIRLS database contains records of all VA beneficiaries including Veterans whose survivors applied for burial or other survivors’ benefits. The VHA Office of Informatics and Analytics, National Data Systems (NDS), and VA Office of Information and Technology, Austin Information Technology Center maintain the BIRLS Death File. The BIRLS Death File is a source file for the VHA Vital Status File.

Updating the Death File

BIRLS is updated to include a date of death when the VBA receives notification that a Veteran has died. Notification may come from family members applying for death benefits, VHA hospitals, or the VA National Cemetery Administration. The VBA also has a monthly automated process to identify deaths by matching VBA data with the Social Security Administration (SSA) Death File. Regional Offices receive these notifications and manually update the date of death in BIRLS. In a small number of cases, deaths may be incorrectly recorded or the notice may not be accurate. The notice of death is validated only if the Veteran is receiving benefits to prevent termination of benefits if the notice is incorrect.

The BIRLS Death File is completely refreshed each month from the BIRLS system. This refresh allows for changes made in BIRLS to be propagated to the BIRLS Death File on a timely basis.

BIRLS Death File Data

The BIRLS Death File contains cumulative data on Veteran deaths ascertained from multiple sources including:

  • Reports from family members applying for death benefits
  • VHA hospitals
  • VA National Cemetery Administration
  • Social Security Administration (SSA) Death File
  • Data in the BIRLS Death File are refreshed monthly

It also contains information other than date of death that may be useful to researchers. Additional data elements include military branch of service and duty entry and release dates.

The BIRLS Death File is available as a SAS dataset and is stored on the Austin Information Technology Center (AITC) Mainframe. It includes both real and scrambled Social Security Numbers (SSNs). BIRLS Death File records may be linked to Veterans’ data in other VA files using real or scrambled SSNs.

The table below provides more information about the file.

Identifier Name / Location on AITC Mainframe Availability
Both Real and Scrambled SSNs MDPPRD.PRO.SAS.VHA.BIRLS.DEATHS(0) Cumulative Data – use most recent file

BIRLS Death File Access

The process for requesting access depends on how the data will be used. VIReC provides data access information through our collaboration on the VHA Data Portal Intranet site, including details on accessing the BIRLS death file for the following data use categories:

  • Research
  • Preparatory to Research
  • Operations

The Data Access section of the Portal is available to researchers with VA network access by copying and pasting the following URL into the browser:

Research Utility

Quality of Death Dates

Accurate information on the date of a Veteran's death is important in a wide range of research investigations. Studies have demonstrated that use of the BIRLS Death File alone will yield incomplete death ascertainment. VIReC’s VA-NDI Mortality Data Merge Project provided an assessment of the accuracy of death dates in several VA data sources through 2003, including the BIRLS death file. The study found that using a combination of the available death date sources resulted in death ascertainment nearly as complete as using the National Death Index data.

Therefore, it is recommended that researchers use the VHA Vital Status File when complete and accurate death ascertainment for study subjects is required. Complete results of the project are available in VIReC Technical Report #2: VA-NDI Mortality Data Merge Project. Additional information on mortality in the VA is available from VIReC’s "Vital Status Ascertainment" page.

Cause of Death

The BIRLS Death File does contain a “Cause of death” variable, but this variable does not contain the type of data that researchers often need. The only possible values for the “Cause of death” variable in the BIRLS Death File are Unknown, Natural, Combat, or Other. The distribution of this variable is approximately 82% Unknown, 17% Natural, and less than 1% each for Combat and Other.

Documentation & Resources

  • Lorenz KA, Asch SM, Yano EM, Wang M, Rubenstein LV. Comparing strategies for United States veterans' mortality ascertainment. Popul Health Metr. 2005 Feb 24;3(1):2.