VA hot­line chief has a his­tory of dropped calls from vets

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION - Gregg Zoroya

A for­mer Air Force of­fi­cer cho­sen to fix the VA’s prob­lem-plagued sui­cide hot­line has been run­ning other agency phone banks that have a poor record of ser­vice, drop­ping as many as one in four calls from veter­ans, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­nal data pro­vided to USA TO­DAY.

The deputy sec­re­tary for the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Affairs, Sloan Gib­son, de­fended the choice of Matthew Ei­tutis over­see­ing the cri­sis hot­line, telling USA TO­DAY on Fri­day that Ei­tutis has shown con­sid­er­able ini­tia­tive for one of the agency’s big­gest chal­lenges — just an­swer­ing the phone.

The cri­sis hot­line (800-273-8255), cre­ated in 2007 to deal with ris­ing num­bers of veter­ans threat­en­ing sui­cide, was ac­claimed in an Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­tary last year, but last month was re­vealed in an in­spec­tor gen­eral re­port to have al­lowed calls to go to voice mail.

At a Se­nate hear­ing on Thurs­day, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., re­vealed that 30-yearold Army vet­eran Tom Young, who served in Iraq, com­mit­ted sui­cide last July af­ter fail­ing to reach some­one on the sui­cide hot­line.

Gib­son an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary that he was shift­ing man­age­ment of the cri­sis line from med­i­cal of­fi­cials to a VA busi­ness of­fice run by Ei­tutis, 46, a re­tired Air Force ma­jor who has mas­ter’s de­grees in pub­lic health and hu­man re­sources, and has worked eight years for the VA.

For the past two years, Ei­tutis has been in charge of the VA’s Health Re­source Cen­ter, which op­er­ates cen­ters that field hun­dreds of thou­sands of calls each day from veter­ans or fam­ily mem­bers seek­ing in­for­ma­tion on is­sues such as ben­e­fits, co-pay­ments or phar­macy in­for­ma­tion. In Jan­uary, Ei­tutis was named act­ing di­rec­tor of an um­brella of­fice called Mem­ber Ser­vices, which over­sees Health Re­source Cen­ter and other units.

In­ter­nal data on call cen­ter op­er­a­tions pro­vided to USA TO­DAY by VA whis­tle-blower Scott Davis shows that in the 12 months prior to Jan­uary, the phone banks at the Health Re­source Cen­ter had a call “aban­don­ment rate” of 26%. Aban­don­ment rates re­flect calls where veter­ans hang up, of­ten be­cause they’ve waited so long for an an­swer. The av­er­age wait time for an an­swer to a call into the Health Re­source Cen­ter phone banks was be­tween two and six min­utes in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the data.

“It shows that Mr. Ei­tutis’ of­fice has a his­tory of drop­ping calls from veter­ans,” said Davis, who works in the VA’s na­tional en­roll­ment cen­ter, which falls un­der Mem­ber Ser­vices. “I don’t know how some­one can look at the per­for­mance of that op­er­a­tion and say, ‘This is a guy we should give a pro­mo­tion to.’”

But Gib­son, who did not dis­pute the ac­cu­racy of the data, said that be­fore Ei­tutis was placed in charge of the Health Re­source Cen­ter and its phone banks, the VA wasn’t even sure how many calls it was miss­ing.

“One of the big­gest chal­lenges we have right now, and quite frankly it’s a low bar, is an­swer­ing the phone,” Gib­son said. He said the rapid growth of the num­ber of veter­ans seek­ing med­i­cal care or ben­e­fits from the VA has over­whelmed such ser­vices.

Gib­son said that in the two years Ei­tutis ran the Health Re­source Cen­ter, he ex­panded the num­ber of phone lines so that the of­fice was fi­nally able to gauge how many calls it was miss­ing, and he has since launched a pro­gram to ex­pand staffing and re­duce the num­ber of aban­doned calls to zero.

He said Ei­tutis also fixed prob­lems at a smaller phone bank, the Na­tional Call Cen­ter for Home­less Veter­ans.

Of­fi­cer had trou­ble with phone banks, records show

ALEXWONG, GETTY IM­AGES

Sloan Gib­son, Veter­ans Affairs deputy sec­re­tary, has de­fended the choice of Matthew Ei­tutis over­see­ing the cri­sis hot­line.

PRO­VIDED

Army vet­eran TomYoung of Des Plaines, Ill., with daugh­ter­sMag­gie, 2, and Vivie, 6, com­mit­ted sui­cide July 23.

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