- @greggzoroy­a Gregg Zoroya

More than a third of troubled veterans are not getting through to the best trained suicide-hotline staffers because of poor work habits at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ call center, according to VA emails obtained by USA TODAY.

Some workers handle only one to five calls each day and leave before their shifts end even though phone lines have gotten busier, the emails say. As a result, 35% to 50% of the calls roll over to back-up centers where workers have less training to deal with the emotional problems of former service members.

“There are staff who spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity,” then-crisis line director Greg Hughes complained in a May 13 email to the hotline staff. Hughes left the position June 17. “If we continue to roll over calls because we have staff that are not making an honest effort, then we are failing at our mission.” His email suggested that as many as half the workforce was underperfo­rming.

The VA, which confirmed the authentici­ty of the emails, has been swamped with calls since opening in 2007. The volume increased from fewer than 10,000 in 2007 to more than 500,000 last year, according to a recent Government Accountabi­lity Office report.

A 2010 calculatio­n by the VA estimates that 22 veterans kill themselves each day. The VA, which has not updated that estimate, says the hotline “rescues” 30 veterans from suicide each day.

Thirteen days after Hughes’ May 13 email message, he drafted a second email saying that the rollover rate had improved slightly to 35% to 40% of calls rolled over to the backup center, down from 45% to 50% when he sent his first message. Still, “We staff to a certain level and then we do not have that coverage because we have staff who routinely request to leave early,” Hughes wrote in the May 25 email.

Sloan Gibson, deputy director of the VA, who has set a goal of zero calls going to back-up centers by Sept. 30, told USA TODAY he is unhappy about the staff problems.

The VA’s efforts to provide suicide hotline counseling have taken a battering this year. Last year, the work of the hotline staff was movingly portrayed in an HBO film, Crisis

Hotline: Veterans Press 1, which received an Oscar for best documentar­y, short subject. But in February, an inspector general investigat­ion revealed that some of the incoming calls early last year had rolled over to back-up centers and gone to voicemail.

The VA said it has fixed that problem. But the inspector general also complained about a lack of training and proper accreditat­ion for the back-up centers. A report by the Office of Special Counsel in April said the training and accreditat­ion problems with back-up centers had not been corrected. “Part of the reason that we want to go toward where we eliminate the backup centers is

because we feel we can do a better job,” Hughes said in an interview.

The back-up calls centers are part of a network of 164 private, non-profit phone-banks that also provide services to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or national suicide hotline.

Hughes’ efforts to improve the phone-bank were praised by the GAO. “It seemed like the director was on track to make needed improvemen­ts,” GAO senior investigat­or Randall Williamson said.

In an interview, Hughes said he left the job for family reasons. Matthew Eitutis, director of VA Member Services, which oversees the hotline, said an acting director is in place and efforts are underway to hire a permanent replacemen­t.

Asked how many staffers underperfo­rmed, he initially said he didn’t know the specific number, but later said about 5%.

Hughes said that under a labor agreement, problem employees handling phone calls can be discipline­d under a process that begins with raising concerns, as he did in his emails. Gibson, the VA deputy director, said the hotline jobs are among the most stressful occupation­s in the department.

Eitutis said the hotline office is expanding and taking steps to improve services, such as recording phone calls to improve quality of care. Eitutis said the call center will have a record 236 responders answering phones in a few weeks.

Gibson said changes are long overdue. “I step back from this and I look at it and I see a function, an activity, that has been chronicall­y under-managed for years,” he said.

 ?? THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC ?? Deputy VA Director Sloan Gibson
THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC Deputy VA Director Sloan Gibson

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