VA suicide hotline still plagued with problems, IG finds

Despite change in leadership and promises to address ongoing problems with its veteran suicide line, nearly 30 percent of calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs were redirected to outside emergency centers, according to an inspector general report released Monday.

“We found that [Veterans Crisis Line] staff did not respond adequately to a veteran’s urgent needs during multiple calls to the VCL and its backup call centers,” the report said.

When the VCL program was started in 2007, VA management initially estimated that approximately 10 percent of calls would be rolled over to a backup center.

In fact, call rollover to backup centers increased between April and November 2016, peaking at more than 108,000, or a 28.4 percent rate.

In November, calls to the backup centers hit a peak of nearly 18,000 – a nearly 35 percent rollover rate.

In February 2016, the IG issued a report detailing how some suicide calls were being sent to voicemail or callers did not always receive immediate assistance from VCL and/or backup center staff.

The IG then called for the department to implement seven separate recommendations, but as of December 16, 2016 none were in place, Monday’s report said.

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.) expressed frustration, saying it is “unacceptable that issues with the Veterans Crisis Line have still not been addressed.”

Communications Director Tiffany McGuffee Haverly told Fox News the committee will hold a hearing April 4 to examine ongoing issues with the Veterans Crisis Line.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, echoed Roe’s reaction to the IG report.

“The findings in this latest report identify an unacceptable disconnect between the Clinical Advisory Board and the Veterans Crisis Line in obtaining the clinical input necessary to make policy decisions. The Veterans Crisis Line should be collaborating with clinical services every step of the way,” he said in a statement.

Amanda Maddox, spokesperson for Isakson, told Fox News the committee was “informed by the inspector general that they do not believe there is a need for legislation. Our committee is currently looking into additional oversight options as well.

The IG also reported that management had not set any standards for the length of wait times when a veteran calls.

“We found that VCL leadership had not established expectations or targets for queued call times or thresholds for taking action on queue times. A veteran could be queued for 30 minutes, for example, and that wait time might not be reflected in hold time data; however, the result of the delay is the same, whether the veteran was in a queue or on hold,” the IG said.

The IG also criticized the absence of sustained and permanent leadership at the VCL, which functioned without a director for 10 months in 2015 before a permanent replacement was named.

But that director resigned in June 2016 and as of December 2016, no permanent director has been hired. Furthermore, supervisory staff did not identify the deficiencies in their internal review of the matter.