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Lawmakers, advocates: Veterans Crisis Line is better, but not fixed

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 4, 2017

WASHINGTON — The Veterans Crisis Line is showing signs of improvement, but its leaders shouldn’t be so quick to say its longstanding problems are completely fixed, some lawmakers, internal watchdogs and veterans organizations said Tuesday.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing to discuss problems with the suicide hotline, following a scathing report released March 20 by the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs. The report concluded about 30 percent of calls to the hotline at the end of 2016 were rolled over to backup centers. The VA does not operate the backup centers and calls there are sometimes placed in a queue.

VA staff responded to the report March 21, stating all of the issues with the hotline had since been resolved.

“The press release that came out after the [inspector general] report said you had fixed the problem. I would be very careful saying you fixed all the problems with the [Veterans Crisis Line],” Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said during the hearing.

As of Tuesday, 99.84 percent of veterans’ calls were being answered by hotline workers, said Steve Young, VA deputy undersecretary for operations and management. On Monday alone, the call centers -- one in upstate New York and a new one in Atlanta – took 2,246 calls, while seven went to backup centers, he said.

However, lawmakers noted the crisis line still didn’t have a permanent director and needed to implement better training and clear policies for its staff. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America officials testified its members who recently used the hotline reported lengthy wait times to talk with someone. Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked for call responders to be better monitored by clinicians.

VA Inspector General Michael Missal testified Tuesday that the VA has not successfully followed through on 23 recommendations his office made for the hotline since early 2016. The Government Accountability Office also wrote in testimony that the VA had not implemented two of its recommendations.

“All recommendations remain open today,” Missal said. “Until [VA] fully implements these recommendations, they will continue to have challenges meeting the [Veteran Crisis Line’s] critically important mission.”

Matthew Eitutis, who directs the VA’s office of member services, said he’s been trying for months to prove to the inspector general that the crisis line has done enough to fulfill some of the recommendations. The hotline lacks documentation, though, and Missal said there was some misunderstanding of what was required of the VA.

Young and Eitutis defended the hotline Tuesday. There were high rollover rates at the end of 2016, they said, because the VA was in the process of opening up its new call center in Atlanta. With that call center and the original in upstate New York operating at the same time, the hotline “is the strongest that it has been since its inception in 2007,” Young said.

He said its “tipping point” was Jan. 13, the first day that no calls were rolled over to backup centers. Since then, the hotline has tallied 43 days where it answered 100 percent of veterans’ calls.

Conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans for America responded that Congress should “trust, but verify” that the crisis line is improving.

The VA plans to have all of the recommendations implemented by December 2017, Young said. The agency is required to submit an action plan to the House and Senate VA committees in May.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he was planning a trip to the new call center in Atlanta, and he indicated the committee would be following up.

“About a year ago, we were told the VA would have all these recommendations carried out, and nothing happened,” Roe said. “I hope by the end of this year we can have a follow up, and this has been done.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling
 

Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal, shown here testifying at a House hearing in March, said Tuesday that the VA has not successfully followed through on 23 recommendations his office made for the hotline since early 2016.
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