Improvements were underway at the Veterans Affairs suicide hotline well before the VA inspector general issued a report last week that faulted the service for failing to help some veterans, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said Wednesday.
Responding to a report that found some calls made to the Veterans Crisis Line in 2014 went to voicemail after being routed to backup facilities run by contractors, Gibson said the Veterans Crisis Line, headquartered in Canandaigua, New York, is "staffed by committed, hard-working employees" who save lives every day.
"It is important for veterans and our key stakeholders to know that VA undertook actions to strengthen Veterans Crisis Line operations long before publication of the inspector general report," Gibson said in a blog post on the VA's website.
The VA IG launched its investigation in early 2015 after receiving complaints from callers who said they had been placed on hold, did not receive immediate help or were routed to voicemail when they tried to use the service.
The investigation found that at least 23 calls in 2014 went to backup centers, where they went to voicemail and were never returned.
The IG also found that the centers responsible for the problem — contractors hired to provide backup services when the VA-run Crisis Line is operating at peak — may not have trained their counselors adequately to answer calls from those experiencing a mental health crisis.
Gibson said the VA is moving to hire 68 additional responders for the service, improving management and oversight of its backup centers and upgrading the phone system technology to improve the system and accommodate more calls.
He added that since 2015, VA has:
- Hired several key employees to manage the line, including a new director with social work experience and a director of business operations with call center experience.
- Strengthened staff training for employees involved in crisis response.
- Implemented monitors to improve quality assurance.
- Renovated nearly half the operational work area to accommodate more staff.
"These improvements are increasing our capacity to speak with the veterans that need us most," Gibson said.
The IG report drew criticism Tuesday from Republican lawmakers, who said the failures show the VA must work harder to improve its suicide programs. They added that the department also must change its culture to "get out in front of problems rather than constantly react" to crises.
"The VA's inability to run a call center and deal with increasing demand has put our nation's veterans at greater risk," House Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain said. "There are far too many disconnected and ineffective resources at the VA for suicide prevention."
"The culture of corruption and incompetence at the VA knows no boundaries," said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. "To think that we lose 22 veterans to suicide every day in this country and our VA allows their calls to go to voicemail is unforgivable."
Since it was established in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has received more than 2 million calls and is credited for saving 53,000 lives.
Gibson said VA is working hard to ensure that every veteran who uses the line will be helped promptly.
"Getting this right is a top priority. We need to be able to help veterans when they are at their most vulnerable, when they are in crisis," Gibson said.
The Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans' health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.