VA’s sui­cide hot­line still rid­dled with prob­lems, in­ves­ti­ga­tion finds

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION/WORLD - Dono­van Slack @dono­vanslack USA TO­DAY

The VA sui­cide hot­line is still send­ing nearly a third of calls to out­side back- up cen­ters de­spite pledges by Vet­er­ans Af­fairs of­fi­cials to stop the prac­tice last year after a scathing re­port found the cen­ters had routed vet­er­ans to voice­mail, an in­spec­tor gen­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion found.

The VA opened a new call cen­ter and hired more staff to an­swer phones, but as of Novem­ber, 30% of calls— or 14,600 that month — rolled over to backup cen­ters.

Other con­cerns iden­ti­fied last year about hold times, train­ing, guide­lines and qual­ity as­sur­ance also haven’t been fixed, de­spite VA as­sur­ances they would be ad­dressed by the end of Septem­ber.

“We con­sider all prior rec­om­men­da­tions to re­main open as of the pub­li­ca­tion of this re­port,” John Daigh, as­sis­tant in­spec­tor gen­eral for health care, wrote in the most re­cent in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­port is­sued Mon­day.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral also iden­ti­fied new con­cerns. In­ves­ti­ga­tors found the VA doesn’t keep track of how many vet­er­ans at­tempted or com­mit­ted sui­cide after us­ing the hot­line so there is no way to tell how ef­fec­tive it is. And when of­fi­cials learned of sui­cides, they never re­viewed them to see if fu­ture in­ter­ven­tion pro­ce­dures could be im­proved.

VA of­fi­cials wrote in a re­sponse to the re­port that they agreed with the find­ings and would im­ple­ment fixes. Poonam Alaigh, the VA’s act­ing un­der­sec­re­tary for health, said the hot­line is “the strong­est it’s ever been since its in­cep­tion in 2007” and the ad­di­tional call cen­ter, which opened in Oc­to­ber, is con­tin­u­ing to staff up.

“This will pro­vide call­ers with im­me­di­ate ser­vice and achieve zero per­cent rou­tine rollover to con­tracted backup cen­ters,” she said.

Since its launch, the cri­sis line has an­swered more than 2.5 mil­lion calls and dis­patched emer­gency ser­vices over 66,000 times. The VA call cen­ter was fea­tured in an HBO doc­u­men­tary that won an Os­car in 2015.

When the cen­ter’s phone lines reach ca­pac­ity, new calls au­to­mat­i­cally roll over to one of four backup cen­ters run by a VA con­trac­tor.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral found last year that staffers at the cen­ters did not al­ways pick up calls quickly, were not al­ways trained to the same level as those at the VA call cen­ter and some calls were routed to voice­mail.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors did not say how many calls ended that way, but at least 20 went to voice­mail at one backup cen­ter in 2014. That year, roughly 17% of all calls to the VA hot­line rolled over to the cen­ters.

HBO

Mau­reen from the film Cri­sis Hot­line: Vet­er­ans Press 1.

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