'We really are their last resort': A look behind the scenes at the White House VA hotline
By JESSICA CONTRERA | The Washington Post | Published: August 6, 2018
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The phones rang early in the morning and late in the evening. They rang, always, in the middle of the night. They were ringing now, as Mary Hendricks sank into a swivel chair and settled in beside her co-workers for another day of answering them.
The calls came from veterans who were about to be evicted. Veterans who couldn't get hold of their doctors. Veterans who needed to talk about what they saw in Afghanistan or Iraq or Vietnam.
Mary pressed a button. Her headset clicked on.
"This is the White House VA hotline," she said, introducing herself by first name only. "How can I help you?"
Here in a small West Virginia town, 74 miles from the White House, a Donald Trump campaign promise is being fulfilled. He told the country's 20 million veterans that if they had an issue with the Department of Veterans Affairs, there would be a number they could call 24 hours a day to talk to a real person.
On this day in late July, as Mary was beginning a conversation with one of those veterans, Trump was standing before a crowd of them at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Missouri, introducing a new VA secretary, Robert Wilkie.
The department Wilkie was about to take over had endured months of turmoil. Trump had fired his predecessor via tweet. Longtime employees had been dismissed and demoted. The bipartisanship that once existed inside the halls of the federal government's second-largest agency had been replaced by political infighting over how veterans should be cared for.
All the while, the veterans who were supposed to receive that care kept calling this room inside a nondescript office building to report what was going wrong with it.
"We're going to try to get you some help," Mary said to the man on her line now, an Air Force veteran who had erroneously received a bill for $350.18. He did not have $350.18.
"I will instruct my staff that if a valid complaint is not addressed, that the issue be brought directly to me," Trump said in 2016. "I will pick up the phone and fix it myself if I have to."
But for now, the only person trying to fix it was Mary, a 44-year-old widow with blond hair, a cross around her neck and long lavender nails that clacked on her keyboard. She had learned so much about VA that she wished she had known when her husband, an Army veteran, had been alive. But still, she could not make the $350.18 bill go away.
She could not see why it was sent. She could not access benefits or medical records, even with the man's permission. She wasn't allowed to call his provider. All she could do was type his problem and send it to a different team in a different place that would respond in approximately 60 business days, if it responded on time.
Listen. Type. Send. This was what the 60 customer service agents could do for the 107,000 calls that had come in since June 2017. On this day, there would be 584 more.
Some veterans believed it was helping. Some said it was just another layer of bureaucracy. Mary said only, "You're very welcome, sir. Have a wonderful day," and waited for the phone to ring again.
'I just want to yell'
The history of the Department of Veterans Affairs is entwined with scandal, from its very first leader — an embezzler — under President Warren Harding to the revelation under President Barack Obama that VA hospitals were lying about how long veterans were waiting for care. Obama brought in a new VA secretary, Robert McDonald, to fix it.
One of McDonald's solutions: A hotline.
At first, the line was his cellphone number, which he gave out at news conferences, saying, "Call me Bob." Then he created MyVA311, another line for an agency that has staffed hotlines for everything from quitting smoking to learning about the flu to coping after seeing "Saving Private Ryan."
VA has nearly 20 phone numbers listed on its website as national hotlines, help lines or call centers. These are in addition to the call centers run by individual VA hospitals and veterans service organizations.
The allure of a hotline is that problems cannot be remedied unless they are first reported. But just because problems are reported doesn't mean they will be fixed, said Joe Plenzler, spokesman for the American Legion. That's why organizations like his are skeptical of Trump's version of the idea, which has an annual budget of $7.4 million.
"We are asking: Is it action? Or is it just the appearance of action?" Plenzler said.
On the day after Trump's speech with Wilkie, the action for Mary began with Diet Pepsi and Sheetz coffee, both of which she needed to get through eight hours of calls. (To protect the privacy of veterans, VA officials permitted The Washington Post to listen only to the call takers' side of the conversations.)
"I am so sorry," Mary told the first veteran routed to her phone, as if it were her fault that the Army reservist had been denied the benefits he believed he deserved. Her computer showed he had called many times. "Veteran with brain damage" was how the last call taker described the first of his problems.
Mary was quiet as his voice grew louder in her ear. This job wasn't all that different from the bartending she had done for years.
"I still listen," she said. "I just don't get them drunk."
She'd been working at a restaurant when she met her husband, Rod, who was in the Army during Desert Storm. In their 10 years together, every time she asked about his deployment, he changed the subject. She stopped asking. It stopped mattering to her once he was sick.
Headaches. Kidney problems. Dialysis three times a week, four hours a day. VA doctors and private doctors, bills and paperwork, a system she didn't know how to help him navigate. She tried to be there for him in other ways, to pray for him, to be the wife he needed. The last question she asked him, in the moments before the heart attack that would take his life in 2015, was: "What do you want for dinner?"
A year later, she was working at a dollar store and on a hospital overnight cleanup crew during the 2016 presidential campaign. She had voted for Obama in 2008. But Trump seemed to be working to earn veterans' votes. He didn't hide behind his words. Mary thought Rod would have liked that.
She didn't know it was Trump's hotline when she saw the ad for a call center representative on Indeed.com for a job that paid $12.50 per hour and required someone "compassionate to veterans' concerns." She immediately submitted her résumé. The contractor doing the hiring said she was the first to apply.
Now she was 10 months in, trying to show she was compassionate to this veteran's concerns. "Want me to try to get through to the benefits administration?"
The Army reservist said he'd already tried that.
"I just want to yell," he said, so Mary let him, because that was what she was trained to do.
For three weeks, the agents had been schooled on VA, its "I-CARE values" (Integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, excellence) and "Three E's" (Effectiveness, ease, emotion), lessons that could never fully prepare them for the calls to come.
Like the woman who identified herself as a veteran calling from the Civil War. Or the older man who painted a vivid picture of his sex life, saying, "I can't even . . . " and "She has to . . . " and all the agent could think to say was, "You do what you gotta do, sir."
They were instructed not to disconnect unless they were being screamed at with profanity, which happened daily. ("I am so friggin' nice when I call Comcast now," Mary said.)
So she had listened for over an hour when a veteran called to relive every detail of her sexual assault. She'd listened to a man go on and on about a bill until she realized he was asking whether his wife would have to pay the bill when he died because he was about to kill himself. Suddenly he said, "Thank you so much, sweetie, I got to go," and hung up. Mary called the crisis line to send the police to check on him. She doesn't know what they found.
One call at a time, that was the way to get through.
"Like digging a hole through a mountain with a spoon," said Steven Spaid, 50, an Air Force veteran who spent his career dropping supplies for combat troops out of planes before becoming a call taker.
"We really are their last resort," said Jessica Coates, 36, an Army veteran who used a soothing voice to calm the callers — and short walks around the parking lot to calm herself.
To Mary, so many of the problems felt fixable, if only they had the powers, or permission, to fix them.
"There was this man," she said as she waited for the phone to ring again. "And he just wanted a seat for his wheelchair. He said, 'I don't want a new wheelchair. I don't want pain medication. I just want a seat that doesn't pinch me and hurt me.
"And he had been trying for seven months, and he couldn't get it. I hate that. Those are the ones you want to say, 'All right, give me your address, and I'll send you a seat.' "
'My boy Donald'
What Mary could do was enter the veteran's information in the hotline software, creating what the agents call a case. Each is sent to VA's Office of Client Relations, which looks into resolving it or forwards it to a VA regional office or medical center.
A VA spokesman said 21 full-time employees are responsible for the hotline's cases. Since Oct. 15, when the hotline became 24 hours a day, 89 percent of the cases marked for further action have been resolved, the spokesman said.
Some veterans have become hotline evangelists, spreading the good news about Trump's idea in private Facebook groups where veterans gather by the thousands to swap tips on navigating VA. The agency said 609 people have called to compliment the hotline's performance.
The Facebook groups are also filled with people venting about the hotline's performance. Veterans report never hearing back about claims, retaliation from local VA employees for filing complaints against them and frustration that the hotline is run by VA itself, rather than an outside entity trying to keep it accountable. When Trump promised the line, he described it as a "private White House hotline."
Now so many veterans called thinking they were reaching 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that Mary had the White House switchboard number memorized. The callers wanted to tell "my boy Donald" he was doing a great job. They wanted to say they liked Wilkie. They wanted to know whether Mary could run down the hall to see if the Omaha steaks they had mailed to the president had arrived.
'I can tell it's a struggle'
The phone was ringing. A Vietnam veteran.
Decorated for valor. Three years waiting for knee surgery.
"Oh my gracious," Mary said. "Our veterans should be receiving the absolute best care that's available."
"I can put a case in for you," she said.
Another call came. "I can tell it's a struggle to talk to me just with your breathing."
Another call. "It says they are not able to give you the OxyContin you are asking for."
Another. "I can hear in your voice how much she means to you," Mary said, this time to a veteran who had spent 35 minutes telling Mary about his wife.
He had been in a hospital that would not give him water in the evening because he kept wetting his bed. His wife slept in a sleeping bag on the floor so he could go to the bathroom during the night. Mary touched the cross around her neck. She hasn't been to church since her husband died, but she still prays for the veterans who call and for herself, so she can find the right words to say.
"You're very fortunate to have each other," she said now, and then the man was finishing his story and thanking her.
"You're absolutely welcome, sir. It is my privilege," she said.
He kept talking. "God bless you, too, sir," she said.
"Just one more thing," the veteran said, and she stayed on the phone to keep listening.
Hotline agent and Army veteran Jessica Coates, standing, works with colleagues during a training session.
BONNIE JO MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST