Make VA hot­line work, with or with­out new law

The Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs has called it a pub­lic health cri­sis — an es­ti­mated 20 vet­er­ans com­mit sui­cide ev­ery day. So it is no triv­ial mat­ter that a sui­cide hot­line run by the VA is fail­ing to an­swer the phone.

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE -

It is no triv­ial mat­ter that a sui­cide hot­line for vet­er­ans run by the VA is fail­ing to an­swer the phone.

The for­mer di­rec­tor of the Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line told the As­so­ci­ated Press that an aver­age of 35 to 40 per­cent of the calls to the hot­line in May went unan­swered by the cri­sis-trained Health Science Spe­cial­ists at the VCL’s lo­ca­tion in Canandaigua, N.Y. The calls rolled over to backup cen­ters run by a con­trac­tor and staffed by work­ers, some­times vol­un­teers, who lack spe­cial­ized train­ing.

That’s con­sis­tent with the find­ings of the Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, which ran a covert test of the Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line dur­ing the sum­mer of 2015. In­ves­ti­ga­tors de­ter­mined that the sui­cide hot­line met the VA’s call re­sponse time goals — an­swer­ing the phone within 30 sec­onds or some­times 60 sec­onds — only 65 to 75 per­cent of the time. The rest of the calls were trans­ferred to one of five backup call cen­ters, where some call­ers were left on hold.

The VA’s pol­icy pro­hibits Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line staffers from plac­ing call­ers on hold with­out first com­plet­ing a sui­cide assess­ment.

The GAO also found prob­lems with the Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line’s re­sponse to text mes­sages, a ca­pa­bil­ity added to the VCL in 2012. Four of the 14 text mes­sages in the GAO’s covert test went unan­swered.

In Fe­bru­ary, the VA’s Of­fice of In­spec­tor Gen­eral re­ported on com­plaints about the Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line dat­ing back to 2014. The re­port doc­u­mented that 20 calls to one backup cen­ter went to voice­mail. The calls were never re­turned be­cause the staff didn’t know there was a voice­mail sys­tem.

The VA has made a few changes, in­clud­ing mod­i­fy­ing the con­tract with the backup call cen­ter provider to pro­hibit voice­mail. The agency said it will hire more staff for the pri­mary call cen­ter in New York and open an­other one in At­lanta.

The fact is, the cri­sis line has not been able to keep pace with the cri­sis.

From 2008 to 2015, the num­ber of calls to the Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line in­creased by nearly 700 per­cent. Last year the VCL re­ceived over 500,000 calls, and no one knows how many more call­ers may ac­ci­den­tally have reached a call cen­ter not op­er­ated by the VA.

The Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line shares a na­tional toll-free num­ber with the Na­tional Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion Life­line — 1-800-273-TALK (8255). A recorded mes­sage in­structs vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies to press “1” to be con­nected to the VCL. No one col­lects statis­tics on how many peo­ple try­ing to reach the Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line miss the “Press 1” in­struc­tion and are con­nected to one of the Life­line call cen­ters, which have not met the VA’s re­quire­ments for ser­vices, staffing and train­ing.

On Mon­day, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives unan­i­mously passed the “No Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line Call Should Go Unan­swered” Act. The bill, now in the Se­nate, re­quires the VA to en­sure that a qual­i­fied per­son re­sponds to calls and texts to the cri­sis line in a timely man­ner.

It shouldn’t take a new law to do that. Some­one in the ad­min­is­tra­tion should pick up the phone. — Los An­ge­les Daily News,

Dig­i­tal First Me­dia

From 2008 to 2015, the num­ber of calls to the Vet­er­ans Cri­sis Line in­creased by nearly 700 per­cent. Last year the VCL re­ceived over 500,000 calls, and no one knows how many more call­ers may ac­ci­den­tally have reached a call cen­ter not op­er­ated by the VA.

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