Originally published Feb. 22, 2016.

Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk has called on the VA to fire its mental health director after an investigation found that calls made to the department's suicide hotline went unanswered.

In a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald on Monday, Kirk, who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Veteran Affairs Department spending, said Dr. Mary Schohn should lose her job over problems at the Veterans Crisis Line, which include veterans being placed on hold or sent to voicemail.

The only problem? Schohn hasn't worked at VA since 2014.

Kirk's office issued a mea culpa after finding Schohn is no longer in the department, but a spokeswoman added that the senator has not been able to get answers on exactly who is in charge or responsible.

"The culture of corruption at the VA means consistently protecting those responsible for failing our vets and the taxpayers. Every person who oversaw the hotline for the past nine years should be fired because the GAO and VA OIG have repeatedly noted the crisis line's failure," a Kirk aide said.

A VA Office of Inspector General report released Feb. 11 found that at least 23 veterans who called the line in fiscal 2014 were transferred to a voicemail system and their calls never returned.

The VA IG could not substantiate complaints that some callers were placed on hold, although Kirk cited several examples, including one veteran who posted his 36-minute wait back in 2014 on YouTube.

"For several years, media reports have highlighted problems in the program under the direction of Dr. Mary Schohn ... and again last year, my colleague Sen. Bill Nelson wrote to you with concern that his constituents were being placed on hold," Kirk wrote.

VA officials have said the problems stemmed from routing calls to backup centers when the New York-based line was overloaded.

Employees at the backup centers were unaware they had a voice mail system, according to the report. Investigators also raised concerns over staff training and the qualifications and training of backup center personnel.

VA officials said Wednesday improvements have been underway at the hotline since early 2015 and more are planned. They also said they would implement the recommendations of the VA IG by the end of the fiscal year.

"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," VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said.

Changes include hiring several key employees at the center, including a new director with social work experience and a director of business operations with call center experience, and upgrading the line's technology, according to Gibson.

The suicide hotline was established in 2007 to respond to the rising issue of veterans suicide. According to the IG report, 20 percent of all suicides in the United States are committed by veterans.

The volume of calls to the crisis line increased 30 percent increase in calls over the course of just one year, from 287,070 28,070 in 2013 to 374,053 3754 in 2014, while the backup centers saw a 112 percent increase, from 36,261 in 2013 to 76,887 in 2014.

At a recent summit on veterans suicide in Washington, D.C., McDonald said the line has received 2 million calls to date, with a quarter of those coming in the past year.

Last year, an HBO documentary on the suicide hotline's call center took home the Oscar for best short documentary.

In his letter, Kirk implored VA to replace the director with someone from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services who has experience overseeing a suicide hotline.

"There can be no higher order within the VA than taking seriously the suicide rates of our service men and women when when they return from the battlefield," Kirk wrote. "Use the authority you have to demonstrate that repeated failure at the VA is unacceptable by firing Dr. Schohn." Kirk wrote.

Gibson said the changes at the crisis line and improvements will help ensure that veterans who call the line are 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.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans' health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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