WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials say 99 percent of calls to the department’s suicide hotline are now answered by trained veterans specialists, a dramatic turn-around from just a few months ago.
Earlier this week, officials from the VA Inspector General’s office released a report saying nearly 30 percent of calls to the Veterans Crisis Line were being routed to backup call centers because of deficiencies in the department’s systems.
While suicidal callers are still handled by trained professionals by those backup centers, typically the non-VA staffers lack information on military-specific services and access to individual veterans’ health records.
Lawmakers called those findings alarming, but VA leadership late Tuesday said that report does not take into account substantial improvements in the system in the last three months. The IG report tracked call response rates from April 2016 to December 2016.
Since then, the rollover rate has dropped from around one in four calls to one in 210, according to John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
"Essentially, they are answering calls at a rate that exceeds standards for 911 call centers," he said in a statement. "The change has been extraordinary, to say the least."
VA officials credited the improvement with the opening of the new Atlanta office for the crisis line in last fall, which nearly doubled the program’s capacity to field calls. Before then, all operations were handled through Canandaigua VA Medical Center in New York.
The second site increased the number of call responders from 310 to more than 500 and the number of social service assistants from 43 to nearly 80.
Department officials announced the new response rate numbers in a press release that boasted "the challenges with the Veterans Crisis Line have been resolved." In a statement, VA Secretary David Shulkin said fixing the problems "was a critical step in keeping our commitment to veterans."
The IG report also listed concerns about how problems with calls to the crisis line are tracked and reviewed. Last spring, a similar report by the office found at least 23 callers to the crisis line were transferred to voicemail systems instead of reaching emergency help.
In a statement, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., praised the "immediate action" on the issue. His committee is planning hearing on the crisis line on
Suicide prevention has been a major focus of the department in recent years, but outside advocates have questioned whether new programs and funding have resulted in a noticeable decrease in the problem.
In fiscal 2016, the Veterans Crisis Line answered more than 510,000 calls, 53,000 chat requests and 15,000 texts. VA statistics show roughly 20 veterans a day nationwide commit suicide, but only about one-fourth of those are active users of VA services.
To contact the Veteran Crisis Line, callers can dial 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their families members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.