WASHINGTON — The Veterans Crisis Line continued to send approximately 30 percent of its calls to backup centers near the end of 2016, according to an internal watchdog report released Monday that outlined widespread problems with the suicide hotline.
The Department of Veterans Affairs established the Veterans Crisis Line as a suicide-prevention effort in 2007 and estimated 10 percent of its calls would be routed to a backup call center – where calls are sent if all phone lines are busy. But from April through November last year, the amount of calls sent to backup centers hovered at about 30 percent, even after a second call center was opened in Atlanta in October, according to a report from the VA inspector general's office.
Calls sent to some backup centers, which are not run by the VA, are placed in a queue, leading to some veterans waiting for a response or hanging up and trying to call back. The VA doesn't track how long veterans wait in a queue, the report states.
The findings follow internal emails sent in September by the hotline's former director, Greg Hughes, that stated 35 to 40 percent of calls were rolling over to backup centers. The reports -– and earlier findings from the inspector general that 23 callers were sent to a voicemail system -- prompted a new law requiring the VA to submit improvement plans this year.
"It's unacceptable that the issues with the Veterans Crisis Line have still not been addressed," Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said in a prepared statement. "I am extremely frustrated by the OIG's findings and will continue to conduct oversight."
Poonam Alaigh, the VA's acting under secretary for health, wrote in response to the report that the hotline "is the strongest it's ever been." She said the VA would follow up on the 16 recommendations that the inspector general made in the latest report.
"VA is making notable advances to improve access and quality of service to mental health crisis care for veterans, which is why we've opened the new Atlanta satellite office," Alaigh wrote.
The inspector general cited training issues, a lack of structured leadership and little follow-through on making improvements the inspector general recommended last year.
"I am disappointed by the lack of action taken by the [VA] to consider the recommendations for improving the shortcomings of the Veterans Crisis Line that were previously identified… more than a year ago," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Additionally, some employees told the inspector general's office that the emphasis at the Veterans Crisis Line was on business metrics, rather than tracking whether veterans received the help they needed.
John Daigh, an assistant inspector general, wrote in the report that the hotline didn't have the resources to answer all of the calls it received. From April through November last year, more than 384,000 veterans and family members called the hotline, and more than 108,000 -- 28 percent -- went to backup centers.
The number of calls sent to backup centers during that time peaked in November, when nearly 18,000 – about 35 percent --- were rolled over.
Daigh attributed the increase to the opening of the Atlanta call center. Poor planning led to the temporary transfer of hotline workers from the original facility in upstate New York to Atlanta to help with training.
"This led to an increase in the number of calls that rolled over to backup centers and delays in the development and implementation of [hotline] processes, policies and procedures," Daigh wrote.
The goal of establishing the Atlanta facility was to have zero calls rollover to backup centers. The center took its first call Oct. 10, but failed to meet a goal of answering all calls by Nov. 21. It didn't meet its second target date of Dec. 12.
In December, more than 14,600 calls – or 30 percent – were rolled over.
Though problems exist, the review found that hotline workers had an "unwavering and impressive commitment" to "compassionately assist veterans in crisis," Daigh wrote.
Alaigh wrote the hotline has answered nearly 2.6 million calls since 2007 and initiated emergency services in 67,000 instances. Veterans needing support can contact the hotline at 1-800-273-8255, and press 1, chat online at veteranscrisisline.net or text 838255.
"The [hotline] is a critical effort to reduce veteran suicide for those who call in crisis," Inspector General Michael Missal wrote in a statement. "Therefore, it is imperative that VA take further steps to increase the effectiveness of [its] operations."