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VA: Longtime troubles at veterans’ suicide hotline now ‘resolved’

The Veterans Crisis Line continued to send approximately 30 percent of its calls to backup centers near the end of 2016, according to an internal watchdog report released Monday that outlined widespread problems with the suicide hotline.

U.S. DEPT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS PHOTO

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 22, 2017

WASHINGTON — The day following a scathing report about ongoing problems at the veterans’ suicide hotline, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a statement late Tuesday asserting the problems were fixed.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs is proud to announce that the challenges with the Veterans Crisis Line have been resolved,” the statement reads.

But on Monday, the VA inspector general’s office had released a report that found as recently as late 2016 the Veterans Crisis Line continued to send about 30 percent of its calls to backup centers, where calls are sent when all phone lines are busy. The findings added to other reports critical of the hotline, which sent 23 callers to a voicemail system last year, according to a different inspector general report released in February 2016.

The new findings drew criticism Monday from lawmakers on the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees who said they would increase oversight of the hotline.

Yet the VA now contends hotline workers are answering 99 percent of calls, with only 1 percent of calls sent to backup centers.

VA Secretary David Shulkin, pressing that the problems were already handled, said in a statement that “fixing the Veterans Crisis Line was a critical step in keeping our commitment to veterans.”

During an House oversight committee hearing Wednesday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., questioned VA Inspector General Michael Missal about the hotline and said it’s “hard to have confidence in these numbers, given their track record.”

“I think you can probably understand the doubt that I feel, given that the VA has already had a problem with fudging and altering data to reflect better numbers than reality,” Wasserman Schultz said.

December was the last month the inspector general reviewed the hotline. Missal said at the hearing that he couldn’t neither verify nor deny the VA’s new information but that his office would continue to look into it.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that the committee would hold a hearing April 4 about the hotline.

“I commend Secretary Shulkin for taking immediate action to address the issues with the Veterans Crisis Line, and I look forward to reviewing these adjustments in our hearing,” Roe said in a written statement.

Last fall, the VA established a new call center in Atlanta to better handle a growing volume of calls going to the veterans’ hotline. The facility took its first call Oct. 10. But the number of calls rolling over to backup centers peaked in November to 18,000 of 31,000 calls, or about 35 percent, the inspector general’s report showed.

The Atlanta center failed to meet a goal of answering all calls by Nov. 21, and it missed its second target date of Dec. 12, the report states. In December, 14,600 calls – approximately 30 percent – were rolled over.

In its statement Tuesday, the VA conceded the rollover rate “often exceeded 30 percent” before the Atlanta facility was fully operational, but that it had drastically improved since December.

John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said the lifeline provided support for the veterans’ hotline as it readied the Atlanta facility. While the backup centers had been handling one in every three calls, he said the Veterans Crisis Line is now rolling over only one in every 210 calls.

“Essentially, they are answering calls at a rate that exceeds standards for 911 call centers,” Draper said in the statement.

John Daigh, an assistant inspector general, wrote in Monday’s report that at time of its release, the VA had failed to provide proof it followed up on recommendations the inspector general made for the veterans’ hotline in February 2016. The recommendations included establishing a better leadership structure and increasing training for hotline workers.

The inspector general offered 16 other recommendations in its new report, and the VA had responded by setting the target to implement those recommendations by later in 2017.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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