WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials announced late last week that a full roll out of the White House VA Hotline won’t happen for another two months, as officials continue to work through staffing and operations issues.
But the delay isn’t the only challenge facing the still-new call center, which has yet to fully resemble the service President Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail last year.
The hotline — live now at 855-948-2311 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. EDT — was touted by administration officials in May as a way to “collect, process and respond to the complaints of individual veterans in a responsive, timely and accountable manner.”
The system is being run by VA employees, not White House staffers, despite Trump’s own pledges that the hotline would be a way for veterans to directly voice their complaints to the Oval Office. White House officials have directed all questions on hiring and operations of the hotline to department officials.
Before the June 1 “soft launch” of the hotline, VA Secretary David Shulkin said that he hoped to have the phone line operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week by Aug. 15. But last Friday, department officials announced plans to primarily staff the hotline with “highly qualified veterans … instead of contracting the service to a third-party vendor.”
In a statement, Shulkin said the move will mean the around-the-clock operators won’t be available until early October, but added the delay is worthwhile.
“The message we’ve heard loud and clear is veterans want to talk to other veterans to help them solve problems and get VA services,” he said. “We’re taking steps to answer that call.”
A VA spokesman said in the first seven weeks of the hotline, operators answered 8,249 calls. The majority were complaints about department operations and benefits, not compliments.
Of that group, officials determined that almost half — 3,754 — were “policy comments, feedback or general inquiries” that did not require a response from the administration. Another 3,130 did receive some sort of resolution, and the remaining 1,365 cases were still under review at the start of August.
But the full process for counting a call as “resolved” remains unsettled.
Thomas Fant, a 45-year-old disabled Coast Guard veteran, contacted the hotline in late June with a pair of complaints about a medical appointment issue and an ongoing travel reimbursement dispute. Both times, his complaint was passed on to regional VA staffers.
In the first case, he received assurances that new appointment scheduling training would address his complaints about receiving appointment changes through the mail. In the second, local officials still could not explain why his multi-year fight to correct travel payouts remained in dispute.
When he called the VA hotline back a month later, an operator told him his initial complaint had been marked down as “resolved” despite the lingering reimbursement issue.
“The spirit of the hotline was great, but it seems ill-conceived the way it was rolled out,” Fant said. “My impression is it turned out to be another layer of bureaucracy instead of simplifying things.
“This is really more of another VA hotline than a White House hotline.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump portrayed the hotline as a way to keep VA administrators in check, by directing complaints about the department directly to the White House. He even suggested he might field a few calls from veterans to the complaint line, saying that “this could keep me very busy at night.”
VA officials are overseeing all hiring and staffing issues related to the line, calling into question whether White House staff has any responsibilities with the hotline. But White House officials have included the creation of the new phone line as one of their key promises kept from the campaign.
White House officials have confirmed that the hotline for now is based out of VA headquarters, and that veterans who call the White House’s switchboard with VA questions are transferred directly to the new hotline.
Meanwhile, VA already has multiple other call lines for veterans seeking information, including ones dedicated to benefits questions (800-827-1000), online accounts problems (800-983-0937), burial eligibility (800-535-1117), and health care services (877-222-8387).
Democrats on Capitol Hill have questioned whether the new hotline adds any real value for veterans, or is simply using up staff and funds that would be better spent elsewhere.
“Not only has Trump not answered a single call, but the hotline is not even located in the White House since responsibility has been entirely pawned off on an already overburdened staff at VA headquarters,” said Griffin Anderson, spokesman for House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tim Walz, D-Minn. “Sadly, the hotline amounts to little more than a well marketed complaint line that does little to help the veterans who call.”
He added that money would be better spent “consolidating (VA) customer service and improving existing services like the Veterans Crisis Line.”
So far, operating the new White House/VA hotline has totaled more than $200,000, with a pricetag of about $5,700 a month for recurring access and maintenance costs. VA officials did not say how much hiring and training the new operators will cost, or whether that spending total is expected to rise significantly.
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.