WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs leaders say staffers at the Veterans Crisis Line have answered every single incoming call for 43 of the last 79 days. Oversight officials say there is still a lot of room for improvement.
"This is the one area where we must aim for perfection," said House Veterans' Affairs Committee Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. "This is a zero-sum proposition, with lives in the balance."
Despite dramatic improvements at the emergency response hotline in recent months, lawmakers and outside experts say they still have concerns about the management and operations of the 10-year-old VA crisis line, the department's most well-known and accessible suicide prevention program.
Inspector general investigations into the crisis line last year found numerous instances of calls going to backup centers or voicemail instead of reaching properly trained VA staffers.
Within days of the latest IG report release, however, VA officials announced they had "fixed" problems at the crisis line, including opening a second response site in Georgia in December. Since then, more than 99 percent of calls have been routed to trained VA responders.
"It is worth noting that the rollover rate has dropped even while the number of calls has increased," said Steve Young, deputy undersecretary for operations and management, told committee members at a hearing on the issue Tuesday.
But VA Inspector General Mike Missal said VA leaders still have not addressed 24 recommendations for improvements outlined by his office, some pending for more than a year now.
They include better tracking of training and problems at the hotline, to learn from past problems. Committee members called that unsettling.
"It doesn’t sound like you take it seriously enough," said Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine. "We’re all on the same page, wanting to help veterans, but I’m not satisfied with these answers."
VA officials estimate that 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said the questions surrounding VCL management show "there is very clearly a need for more to be done, and soon, so that we can be assured that every veteran or family member who contacts the VCL gets the urgent help he or she needs."
Melissa Bryant, director of intergovernmental affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said her organization has also seen delays in call transfers to the crisis line, and has concerns about the lack of clinical leadership within the office’s operations.
"It’s governance structure, operations and quality assurance protocols, these are deficiencies that still need to be addressed," she said.
Young said more work is underway. VA officials have submitted additional changes to the IG’s office, and will be issuing another report on improvements by next month.
In fiscal 2016, the Veterans Crisis Line answered more than 510,000 calls, 53,000 chat requests and 15,000 texts. Since 2007, staffers have answered nearly 2.6 million calls and dispatched emergency services to callers in crisis over 67,000 times.
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.netfor assistance.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.