'Complex' Calls to VA Crisis Line Being Handed Off to Understaffed, Undertrained Unit, Whistleblowers Allege

A sign reading "Your Life Matters" is seen at the entrance to the Nebraska National Guard air base
A sign reading "Your Life Matters" is seen at the entrance to the Nebraska National Guard air base in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Sept. 9, 2022. (Lisa Crawford/U.S. Army National Guard)

Whistleblowers have told Congress that callers to the Veterans Crisis Line who present difficult cases are being transferred to an understaffed "complex needs" unit that does not collect callback information in case contact is lost.

The allegations indicate some veterans in crisis may still be falling through the cracks -- even as they reach out for help -- and have prompted an investigation by Republicans on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. In September, the case of a veteran who contacted the crisis line and died by suicide minutes after cutting off contact was detailed by the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general.

Aides for committee ranking member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., told reporters Tuesday that callers who exhibit "disruptive behavior," use curse words or who responders otherwise think are too difficult to handle themselves are being handed off to a "callers with complex needs" unit that is understaffed and undertrained, according to the whistleblowers.

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Further, the whistleblowers allege that contact information for the callers isn't being recorded, so if they hang up or get disconnected while they are waiting on hold for the special unit to answer, there is no way to call them back, said the committee aides, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

The allegations prompted Moran to request a Government Accountability Office, or GAO, investigation of the Veterans Crisis Line, a request the aides said was granted this week.

Moran also sent a letter to VA Secretary Denis McDonough on Tuesday calling on him to "address all critical deficiencies in the Veterans Crisis Line and take appropriate personnel actions without waiting for the full conclusion of this investigation."

VA spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment on the letter or the allegations by Military.com's deadline.

The allegations come after a VA inspector general investigation detailed the failure of the Veterans Crisis Line, or VCL, to help a veteran who texted the hotline and died by suicide minutes after cutting off contact. The inspector general investigation found systemic issues at the Veterans Crisis Line in addition to its failure in the specific veteran's case.

After a Senate hearing in September about the inspector general investigation, multiple current and former VA officials approached Moran with the whistleblower allegations and "substantial evidence of mismanagement creating a danger to the health and safety of veterans nationwide," aides said. The whistleblowers provided documents to support their allegations, the aides added.

The most concerning of their allegations was the special unit for complex cases, the aides said.

The whistleblowers have not alleged any specific cases of suicide connected with the issues with the complex case unit. But the aides stressed that because callers who are transferred aren't being documented, there would be no record of whether they later died by suicide.

Citing the need to protect the whistleblowers' identities, the aides would not elaborate on how many have come forward nor details on their credibility, other than saying the GAO found they had a "high level of credibility."

It's unclear exactly what constitutes a complex case, with the investigation expected to probe that further, but the whistleblowers describe people being transferred when they are disruptive or confrontational in some way, the aides said. There is no written policy or official training for transferring callers to the special unit, the whistleblowers told Moran, so initial responders are making the transfers at their discretion.

The investigation will also answer whether the phone system is not recording contact information altogether or if that information is not being given to responders.

"If the Veterans Crisis Line is letting veterans who reach out in moments of desperation slip through the cracks, as alleged, it needs to be known and it needs to be stopped," Moran wrote in his letter to the GAO earlier this month.

The VCL had nearly 900,000 contacts in 2022 alone, a 15% increase from 2020, and any breakdowns must be found and corrected immediately, according to Moran's letter.

"Any program leaders who are aware of gaps in the service and preventing transparency should be held accountable and replaced," he wrote.

If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, call, 988 Press 1, text 988 or use the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

Related: A Suicidal Veteran Texted the VA Crisis Line. A Responder Didn't Send Help, and Minutes Later the Veteran Was Dead.

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