Almost two dozen people who called the VA’s suicide hotline in fiscal year 2014 heard nothing but a voicemail message instead of reaching a much-needed person on the line.
“We substantiated allegations that some calls routed to backup crisis centers were answered by voicemail, and callers did not always receive immediate assistance from VCL and/or backup center staff,” the inspector general report read, referring to the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL).
An inspector general investigation launched in early 2015 has yielded some unfortunate results. The first, of course, is the fact that veterans on the verge of suicide had their calls picked up by a voicemail service. The second failure determined by the inspector general is the VA has no idea if hotline contractors trained counselors adequately to handle mental health issues. These same contractors were responsible for calls heading straight to voicemail.
What’s worse, John Daigh, who serves as the VA assistant inspector general for health care inspections, said staff had no idea a voicemail messaging system even existed, and so naturally failed to return the calls.
The VA takes a hands-off approach to the contractors running the Veterans Crisis Line, and so has no way to conduct oversight.
Since its inception in 2007, the VCL has saved approximately 50,000 lives and has handled over two million calls. More features have been added in the years following. In 2009, the VA added a cheat feature, and in November 2011, text messaging became available. This means demands on staff increased significantly. Statistics from the VCL website indicate that staff have answered over 240,000 chats and 39,000 text messages.
The VA has until Sept. 30 to implement the set of changes recommended by the IG. According to Military Times, some of those recommended modifications are already underway, which include hiring on more staff and upgrading its equipment. The VA is also trying to rewrite contracts to make sure that contractors actually have expectations they must meet.
Motivation for the report in part came from a veteran in Florida, who claimed that he was placed on hold multiple times while dangerously suicidal. In response, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson asked the IG to conduct an investigation.
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