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Some calls to a veterans suicide hotline routed to voicemail, VA probe finds

One of the backup centers for a Department of Veterans Affairs suicide hotline in Canandaigua routed more than 20 calls to voicemail in 2014, and some callers did not always receive immediate assistance, according to an inspector general’s investigation.

When Veterans Crisis Line management investigated these complaints, it discovered that the backup center staff was not aware the voicemail system existed and, as a result, did not return the calls, the report stated.

The national suicide hotline, based in the VA Canandaigua Medical Center, handled 374,053 calls in fiscal 2014, up from 287,070 the year before. Likewise, the number of calls that went to one of six backup centers increased, from 36,261 to 76,887, in the same period.

Since it started in 2007, the hotline has taken about 1.9 million calls and made more than 50,000 lifesaving interventions, the report stated.

The suicide hotline was the subject of an Oscar-winning HBO documentary, “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1,” that portrayed the emotional strain the job has on its employees, many of whom served in the military or have veterans in the family.

The investigation reported that the suicide hotline received 41 complaints in 2014 from callers concerning both the crisis line and backup center staff and operations. Among other recommendations, the inspector general called for more training for all Veterans Crisis Line staff, especially those in the backup centers.

The inspector general’s report also found that callers had complained of long wait times for responders or calls “not being put through” to a responder. But the Veterans Crisis Line management had no data to ascertain whether the issues were valid and, as a result, could not substantiate that staff did not answer calls, the report stated.

Veterans Affairs concurs with all the inspector general’a recommendations, took action before publication of the report to make improvements and continues to work on resolving the issues, said spokeswoman Victoria Dillon.

“Modernizing the Veterans Crisis Line to better work for veterans has been a department priority, and work is already under way to address these challenges,” Dillon said.

She said the VA expects to complete the work by September.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, criticized Veterans Affairs and suggested that the suicide hotline was inadequately staffed.

“Once again, the VA’s incompetence is putting our veterans at risk,” Collins said in a statement. “It is unacceptable that veterans calling for help in their darkest hour are in many cases met with a voicemail or unable to get through at all.”

Collins said he will request that the House Veterans Affairs Committee hold hearings on the matter.

Veterans Affairs officials have said that many of the calls are not crisis calls, at times burdening staff with other issues, such as questions about benefits.

The changes to improve capacity, management and training included hiring a director with a clinical social work background, a deputy director of business operations with call center management experience, and four dedicated staff trainers and six dedicated quality managers, as well as improving the work flow data so that the most responders were on duty when most needed. The VA also said that it strengthened staff training and upgraded the phone systems and equipment. Other changes underway include the hiring of 68 more crisis line responders, according to the department.

The Veterans Crisis Line – 1-800-273-TALK (8255), Press 1 – provides 24-hour assistance over the telephone and a text-messaging service.

There were 443 suicides by veterans in 2014, 273 among active military and 170 among reserve members, according to the Department of Defense. That’s down slightly from 474 in 2013.

Calls to the Veterans Crisis Line first go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network, which maintains a common national toll-free suicide-prevention phone number and routes calls to crisis centers across the country, including the Veterans Crisis Line in Canandaigua.

The VA contracts with Link2Health Solutions, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Mental Health Association of New York City, to forward or route the calls to the veterans hotline and the backup centers that handle overflow calls.