April 14, 2017
Before breaking for recess, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs held a hearing to address issues surfacing from three separate investigations, conducted in the last year, on the VA Crisis Line (VCL).
Established in 2007, the VCL was the VA's response to the high rate of veteran suicide - a rate 21 percent higher than the adult civilian population. The VCL is one of several elements of a larger outreach strategy to help veterans in crisis and reduce suicides.
Since its inception, the VCL has responded to nearly 2.8 million calls and dispatched 74,000 emergency services to veterans in crisis. This demand is only expected to continue rising even as the VA struggles to keep up with call volume; it has been working fervently to adapt to the changing needs of veterans seeking assistance.
However, with growth, so too comes challenges. Investigations from the VA Inspector General (IG) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted serious management and organizational problems in every aspect of the VCL operations.
“Perhaps most troubling, the IG also found that VA had failed to implement a single action plan to address the recommendations made in the IG's initial report [February 2016], even though VA had agreed with all the recommendations and committed to implementing corrective actions by no later than last September,” stated committee chairman, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.). “I understand that the recommendations that GAO made last summer [August 2016] are also all still open.”
Last month, the IG once again reported additional deficiencies, including those from the two earlier investigations. This brings the total to 23, all of which remain outstanding.
A VA official countered the IG statement during the hearing, saying that VA had submitted a report to the IG to remove six of the seven discrepancies from the initial February 2016 report, and by the end of this year, the agency expected to have all discrepancies corrected and plans implemented.
Over the last several months, the VA has taken a number of significant steps to meet the increased demand of veterans accessing the crisis line. Such steps include establishing a one-to-one chat service via the internet, expanding venues for text messaging, opening another crisis center in Atlanta, as well as other management and organizational changes to prevent rollover of calls and provide callers with an immediate and seamless response experience.
The VA's hard work over the last few months is paying off. Today, the VA reports a rollover rate in calls of less than 1 percent; on average, it answers more than 99 percent of its call volume on a daily basis. This is a far cry from the VA's problem last year when crisis calls were either sent to voicemail or dropped, prompting the initial IG investigation.
While Chairman Roe and the committee's ranking member Tim Walz (D-Minn.) acknowledged the significant efforts of the VA to date to fix the crisis line shortfalls, they also stressed the necessity of ongoing oversight, improvements, and enhancements. Anything less would be “a missed opportunity, which could result in tragedy or loss of life or limb.”
Still, there is much more work to be done. Legislation is needed to make sure the VA has the funding and resources it requires to respond effectively to veterans in need. Promotion of the VA's vast mental health and suicide prevention tools and programs is necessary to increase awareness.
Just this week, the VA announced the deployment of a new predictive modeling system called REACH VET (Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health), which analyzes medical record data to identify veterans at higher risk of suicide, hospitalization, illness, or other health issues.
“We appreciate the VA and Congress' sustained efforts in working with veteran service organizations like ours to promote the crisis line and other suicide prevention tools and materials,” said MOAA's director of government relations for veterans-wounded, ill & injured health care, Cdr. Rene Campos, USN (Ret). “VA's crisis line is an important lifeline and resource for veterans and their families in distress.”
MOAA urges all of our members to become familiar with the resources and tools available through the Veterans Crisis Line website.
If you or a veteran are in need, please dial 1-800-273-8255. The call is confidential and the center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year.
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