Watchdog: Some texts to VA suicide hotline went unanswered

Watchdog: Some texts to VA suicide hotline went unanswered
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Almost 30 percent of text messages sent as a test to a crisis hotline for suicidal veterans went unanswered, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released Monday.

“Our tests of text messages revealed a potential area of concern,” the report reads.

The GAO report follows a scathing inspector general report from February that found some calls to the hotline were going to voicemail or didn’t receive immediate attention.


The inspector general report prompted backlash in Congress, and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in turn promised to fix issues in answering calls to the hotline.

The GAO report also addressed the wait time for callers and noted that the VA is working on its response times to those calling the hotline.

But no similar attention has been placed on responding to text messages, it added. 

The hotline received about 13,000 texts in 2014 and 16,000 in 2015, and VA officials told the GAO that 87 percent received a response within two minutes in both years.

As part of its report, the agency sent 14 test text messages to the hotline. Of those, four went unanswered, for a rate of 28.6 percent of texts unanswered, though the GAO specified its sample is “nongeneralizable.”

Of the rest of the texts, eight got responses within two minutes, and two got responses within five minutes.

The texts sent by the agency were simple greetings such as “Hi” or “Hello.” That might have contributed to the slow responses, the GAO said, because hotline workers try to respond first to ones that indicate a crisis.

As to why some weren't answered at all, the hotline’s text messaging service provider offered five possible reasons: incompatibilities between devices sending the texts messages and the software the VA uses to process the messages; software malfunctions that freeze the hotline’s text messaging interface; inaudible audio prompts used to alert responders of incoming texts; attempts to overload the system with a large number of texts; and incompatibilities between the web browsers used by the call center and the text messaging software.

The VA told the GAO it relies on its text messaging service provider to monitor and test the text messaging system, the report says. But the provider said it doesn’t conduct any routine testing.

“Without routinely testing its text messaging system, or ensuring that its provider tests the system, VA cannot ensure that it is identifying limitations with its text messaging service and resolving them to provide consistent, reliable service to veterans,” the GAO said.

The GAO recommended the VA test the hotline text messaging system, and the VA agreed.

In a written response to the report, the VA said it plans to have a system to test the text messaging service in place by July. 

“The ability to proactive identify and correct errors with the Veterans Crisis Line (VLC) text messaging system will provide greater assurance that veterans in crisis are able to reach a trained VCL response in a timely fashion,” Gina Farrisee, deputy chief of staff at the VA, wrote in a response included in the report. “VCL appreciates GAO’s identifying areas of concern in our text messaging system and intends on utilizing these findings to make improvements.”

In an emailed statement Monday, the VA reiterated that it is working to improve the hotline.

"It is important for veterans and our key stakeholders to know that VA has already progressed forward in several improvements to VCL operations over the past two years" the statement said. "The goal of that progress is to make the VCL nothing short of a world class crisis response center."

The statement later added: "The GAO report found, and we concur, that we have areas that we can improve in, and we are doing that now."

The VA also encouraged veterans in crisis or having thoughts of suicide or those who know a veteran who is to call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at, or text to 838255.

-- Updated at 5:57 p.m.