Lawmakers push VA for evidence of suicide hotline fixes

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A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers is pushing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to outline what improvements it has made to a suicide hotline after a watchdog found that crisis calls were going to voicemail.

{mosads}“Troubling to us are recent reports showing that the [Veterans Crisis Line] has not served as the beacon of hope it was intended to be,” the lawmakers wrote to VA Secretary Robert McDonald in a letter released Wednesday.

“Instead, it has become yet another source of bureaucratic frustration for too many veterans — with one third of calls being diverted to an outside contractor, and many of those being directed to an answering machine or being put on hold.

“This is unacceptable and disingenuous to our veterans who have served in the armed forces and are in need of help.”

The letter was sent by Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; Reps. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chairman and ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee; Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), sponsors of a Senate bill to fix the hotline; and Rep. David Young (R-Iowa), sponsor of a House-passed bill to fix the hotline.

At issue is a February inspector general report that found some calls for help were going to voicemail or did not receive immediate action.

The report made seven recommendations for the VA, including collecting data on calls made to the hotline and making sure all training for crisis hotline staffers is documented. In a written response included in the report, the VA agreed with all of the recommendations and said it would implement them by Sept. 30.

“As that date has now passed, we ask you to confirm that you have met this commitment, and we seek your input on how Congress and VA can work together to strengthen the VCL and ensure that it has the resources necessary to perform its urgent mission,” the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers commended the VA on steps already taken to improve the hotline, including hiring more staff for the Canandaigua, N.Y., call center, opening a backup center in Atlanta that will start taking calls next month and establishing a Clinical Advisory Board.

But, the lawmakers said, more still needs to be done.

“Given the millions of calls placed to the VCL each year, and the crucial nature of timely intervention, we must do more to ensure — without delay — that no call goes unanswered,” they wrote.

The lawmakers specifically asked for a response by Oct. 15 to a number of questions, including the exact dates the VA completed the inspector general’s recommendations, what quality assurance measures have been put in place for the hotline and whether those who call the hotline are provided with the immediate assistance of a trained professional.

The lawmakers also said that fixing the hotline will not be enough to remedy the issue of veteran suicide. 

“As important as it is to ensure veterans in crisis can turn to the VCL, many more reforms are required to address veterans’ suicide — including telemedicine for mental health consultations, improvements to housing assistance programs and reforming the broken benefits appeals process,” they wrote. “We remain eager to work with you to comprehensively address this crisis.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar John Thune Johnny Isakson Richard Blumenthal
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