‘Suicide hotline, can you hold?’

Last spring, a report found that 23 calls to the veteran’s crisis hotline went to voicemail.

The Veteran’s Administration inspector general said he didn’t even know there was a voicemail system.

Politicians said all the things you’d expect politicians to say. The VA said it was hiring additional staff to comply with the inspector general’s report. And then nothing really changed.

The VA started having the unanswered calls roll over to a backup crisis center, not run by VA, and a new report, issued today, finds that a fourth of callers to the hotline end up with the backup center, handled by people who may not be properly trained.

“Staff did not respond adequately to a veteran’s urgent needs during multiple calls to the (crisis line) and its backup call centers,” officials from the VA Inspector General’s office said in the report. “Supervisory staff did not identify the deficiencies in their internal review of the matter.”

The VA set up a second call center in Atlanta. It started taking calls in November, but today’s report said vets still ended up “on hold.” And the number not being answered increased. On seven days last November, 40 percent of the crisis calls were not answered by the VA centers.

The L2HS contract prohibited backup centers from using voice-answering systems or placing VCL overflow calls on hold after
responders answered the call. However, backup call centers historically have placed VCL rollover calls into a queue without immediately providing service or risk assessment. A queued call is one that has been routed to a call center, but not yet answered. During this time, the caller waits for a responder to answer. The caller’s only option is to abandon the call (hang up) and call back, or continue to wait for the responder to pick up. Once a call is routed to a backup center and the call is answered,the responder is required to engage the VCL caller, and conduct and document a suicide risk assessment.

Two of the four backup centers used a call answering system that placed VCL rollover calls in a queue. The queue retained the incoming call indefinitely until a responder answered it; however, the call answering system did not re-route the call to another backup center if no responder was available. The backup centers had processes to record caller wait times and call abandonment rates.

The VA had set a goal of no more than 10-percent of the calls going to another center, Military Times reports today.

An estimated 22 veterans take their own life each day.