Northville, MI (Law Firm Newswire) May 10, 2017 – The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) responded to a recent critical internal watchdog report by insisting it has made significant progress in fixing long-running problems with its suicide hotline. However, lawmakers and veterans groups say the improvements are not enough.
The VA inspector general released a scathing audit in March that revealed a large number of rollover calls, inadequate data to determine call quality and other issues at the troubled Veterans Crisis Line. As recently as November, around one-third of calls went to voicemail or backup call centers operated by outside contractors instead of going to trained VA staffers.
Within days of the report’s release, VA officials claimed all the problems with the 10-year-old hotline have been fixed. The agency pointed to a dramatic turnaround in the number of calls answered since it opened a second center in Atlanta, Georgia, in December. Officials said crisis line responders have answered all but 0.1 percent of incoming calls as of March 25.
“Although the crisis line is showing signs of improvement, VA officials have been hasty in saying all of its issues have been resolved,” said Jim Fausone, a Michigan veterans attorney. “The office still lacks strong leadership to oversee its day-to-day operations and the implementation of recommendations to permanently solve recurring problems.”
Following the report’s release, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing to discuss concerns about how the VA crisis line is being run. VA Inspector General Michael Missal said the agency has still not addressed 24 pending recommendations for improvements outlined by his office in 2016. They include better training and clear policies for its staff, as well as improved tracking of problems at the hotline.
Steve Young, the VA deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, claimed the emergency response hotline “is the strongest it has been since its inception in 2007.” Additionally, rollover rates have decreased even though the number of weekly calls increased by several thousand between November and March. Young testified that the high number of diverted calls at the end of last year was due to the VA working to open its new Atlanta call center.
When questioned by lawmakers, Young said the agency is planning to boost quality control, hire a new permanent director for the hotline and work towards making the other improvements that were previously promised. He added that the VA intends to implement all the inspector general’s recommendations by year-end.
“Approximately 20 veterans take their lives each day,” said Fausone. “The Veterans Crisis Line plays a crucial role in providing urgent help to veterans and their family members, so it is essential that it functions smoothly without any problems.”
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