The Veterans Affairs Department has shifted management of its suicide hotline to a director who successfully fixed the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans, VA officials said Friday.
Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said as of last week, the Veterans Crisis Line reports to Matt Eitutis, the Veterans Health Administration's acting director for member services.
According to Gibson, Eitutis repaired the homeless veterans line after a 2014 VA inspector general report found a quarter of its calls went to an answering machine.
"That line now is absolutely humming. You don't see calls being dropped or sent to voice mail," Gibson said.
The decision to shift oversight of the suicide line stemmed from dissatisfaction with the pace of improvements to the call center, based in Canandaigua, New York, Gibson said.
Gibson visited the New York site on Friday to express support for Crisis Line employees and to emphasize the improvements made before the VA inspector general released a report on Feb. 11 faulting the line and the backup call centers for sending calls to voice mail.
"I want to applaud the incredible work the responders do at the Veterans Crisis Line. These people are heroes. They are saving lives every day," Gibson said during a call with reporters.
Gibson said news reports that followed the IG report failed to note that the call problems occurred in 2014 and the VA already was fixing the issues.
"The simple fact of the matter is the operation at the Veterans Crisis Line today does not bear any resemblance to what happened then," he said.
The VA IG report 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 veterans have told Military Times that they were placed on hold for long periods of time. One former service member even posted his 36-minute wait in a video on youtube.
VA officials 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.
In the past year, the VA has hired additional staff to work peak hours and upgraded its telephone and technology systems to accommodate more calls.
It also is renovating and enlarging call center space to accommodate larger peak-time staff.
The Veterans Crisis Line was established in 2007 to respond to the rising problem of veterans suicide. According to the IG report, 20 percent of all suicides in the United States are committed by veterans.
It has received 2 million calls to date and is credited for saving more than 55,000 lives.
Last year, an HBO documentary on the suicide hotline's call center took home the Oscar for best short documentary.
Gibson said he has made three trips to Canandaigua and held 34 meetings on the crisis line in the past year. He said helping veterans who call the hotline is a top priority.
"The goal is to get the veterans in need of mental health care to receive that care," Gibson said.
Veterans in crisis can call the hotline 24/7 at 800-273-8255, press 1. Chatting also is available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net and by texting 838255.
Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.