Guest Opinion: Make VA hotline work right
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.
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 more than 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.