VA hotline chief has a history of dropped calls from vets
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
Sloan Gibson, Veterans Affairs deputy secretary, has defended the choice of Matthew Eitutis overseeing the crisis hotline.
Army veteran TomYoung of Des Plaines, Ill., with daughtersMaggie, 2, and Vivie, 6, committed suicide July 23.