The Department of Veterans Affairs is defending the existence of a unit within the Veterans Crisis Line meant to handle difficult callers after whistleblower allegations that the unit is letting vulnerable veterans fall through the cracks.
"Our top priority with the VCL is to make sure that veterans get the support they need, whenever and wherever they need it -- and we will never settle for anything less," VA Secretary Denis McDonough wrote in a letter to Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
"VA takes any allegations of insufficient care or service seriously and will investigate thoroughly," McDonough added in the letter, which was released by the VA on Wednesday afternoon.
The letter came after Moran revealed Wednesday morning that several current and former VA staffers approached his office with allegations that callers to the Veterans Crisis Line, or VCL, who exhibit "disruptive behavior" are being handed off to a "callers with complex needs" unit that is understaffed and undertrained.
Furthermore, the whistleblowers allege, the system is not collecting callback information in case the callers hang up or get disconnected while they are waiting on hold for the special unit to answer.
At Moran's request, the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, is investigating the allegations. Moran on Tuesday also sent a letter to McDonough 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."
In his response to Moran, McDonough said department officials "look forward" to the results of the GAO investigation and "considering" any recommendations in the watchdog's report.
The callers with complex needs program was established in 2018 to handle callers who abuse responders with cursing or racist comments, engage in sexual behavior or frequently call into the hotline for reasons other than crisis support, McDonough said.
"Oftentimes, these callers are not veterans -- or those calling on behalf of veterans -- and can take up resources that would normally be used to serve veterans in immediate crisis," he wrote.
There are 127 responders who are fully trained for the complex needs unit, which means they received 32 hours of specialized training, according to the letter. Having a complex needs program is evidence-based, done by other crisis call centers and supported by several accreditation agencies, including the American Association of Suicidology, Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, and the International Customer Management Institute, McDonough said.
Some of the complex needs callers are placed into long holds -- or "selectively delayed responses" -- on purpose in order to give them time to change their behavior before proceeding, something McDonough described as a "best practice" that is used across the government's suicide and crisis hotline, not just at the VA.
During the delay, callers hear a "caring" message about why they are on hold and what to do if they are in crisis, and are given a way to connect with someone immediately if they are in urgent need. If for some reason the call drops during the hold, there are "extensive" records responders can use to reconnect with the caller, according to McDonough.
"Evidence demonstrates that the establishment of the [callers with complex needs] program has both helped [those] callers and improved the VCL for all other callers," McDonough wrote.
The average number of calls made by each person known to be a "complex" caller dropped from 210 in 2017 to 110 in 2022, according to the letter. By comparison, the typical Veterans Crisis Line caller on average called twice in 2022.
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 email@example.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.