Veterans Affairs suicide hotline lets some calls go to voicemail or unanswered



Tuesday, February 16, 2016
A screenshot from "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1," an Oscar-winning documentary about the call center in Canandaigua, N.Y. HBODocs via Youtube

A screenshot from “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” an Oscar-winning documentary about the call center in Canandaigua, N.Y.

The Veterans Crisis Line has a habit of leaving distressed callers hanging — with veterans, troops and family members sometimes getting calls ignored or sent to voicemail, according to a watchdog report.

The probe by the Veterans Affairs Department Inspector found that the 24-hour suicide hotline — which was the subject of a recent Oscar-winning documentary — has struggled to adequately prepare its staff for a massive influx of crisis calls.

The main call center, in Canandaigua, N.Y., has let some calls fall to one of its backup centers — where lesser-trained responders left calls unanswered, according to the report. Calls to backup centers are not monitored by the VA.


Those callers “did not always receive immediate assistance from VCL and/or backup center staff,” the report says, and the center “did not provide social assistance with adequate orientation and ongoing training.”

The report confirmed about 20 complaints over lost calls in fiscal year 2014.

That came at the same time as a massive spike in demand for the center — between 2013 and 2014, calls spiked 30%, with more than 374,053 calls coming in the latter year. More than a quarter of those calls were rerouted to backup centers — a 112% increase in backup calls from the previous year.

The investigation did not specify if any of the forgotten calls resulted in harm to a veteran on the other line. The report says one in five suicides every year are veterans, citing a 2010 report from the Veterans Health Administration.

Prominent politicians have widely cited a statistic saying 22 veterans commit suicide every day, although that figure has been disputed.

The report comes about a year after a film about the main call center, “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” won the Oscar for Best Documentary — Short Subject. The film followed several responders handling life-or-death calls involving veterans and military members.

The VA said it will agree to the report’s recommendations for improvement, which included specific expectations for backup centers and quality assurance criteria for all calls. Officials said the VA would implement changes to the system by Sept. 30.

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