Northville, MI (Law Firm Newswire) November 7, 2016 – Frontline staff are failing to answer more than one-third of calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) suicide hotline. Former hotline director Greg Hughes pointed out that poor work habits, low productivity and other departmental issues were to blame.
Several weeks prior to leaving his job in June, Hughes sent an internal email saying workers “spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity.” Some Veterans Crisis Line employees answer under five calls per day. They also end their shifts early despite the sharp rise in the volume of crisis calls in recent years. The hotline received over 500,000 calls in 2015, a 50-fold increase since it was launched in 2007.
“It is no small matter that so many crisis line calls are going unanswered when an estimated 20 veterans commit suicide every day,” said Jim Fausone, a Michigan veterans attorney. “Veterans who turn to the crisis line in their time of need should not feel let down and frustrated by something that is supposed to help them.”
Hughes said around 35 to 40 percent of hotline calls received in May rolled over to contractor-run backup centers. The centers are staffed with volunteers and workers who lack specialized training in handling veterans’ problems.
The VA’s Office of Inspector General revealed in a February report that one in six calls are diverted to backup centers where callers are not always assisted immediately. Some are left on hold in violation of VA policy. In addition, crisis calls are routinely allowed to go to voicemail. Employees at one center were unaware a voicemail system existed.
The House on September 26 unanimously approved the No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act. The measure requires the VA to ensure that all phone calls and text messages to the crisis line are answered in a timely manner by a qualified individual. A similar Senate bill is awaiting passage.
The VA said it is increasing staff at the hotline’s New York hub and opening a new call center in Atlanta. The agency promised to continue efforts to improve training. The VA has also modified its contract with the backup call center contractor to stop the use of answering machines.
“Veterans suicide prevention should be a top priority at the VA. Practical, long-term solutions are needed such as ensuring call centers are adequately staffed and that workers are aware of their responsibilities,” said Fausone.
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