A new report shows the Department of Veterans Affairs is failing to answer calls on the Veteran Crisis Line, leaving many veterans waiting 30 minutes, a federal performance that one prominent veterans advocate says should leave the American people “disgusted.”
The VA’s own inspector general issued the report Monday. First created in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line is designed to have 10 percent or fewer of the calls roll over into overflow call centers. However, from April through November of 2016, 28.4 percent of calls went to those call centers, with many waiting 30 minutes for someone to speak to them. In October, the rate was 34.9 percent.
“It’s disgusting. Every American should be absolutely disgusted with this rate for a suicide hotline. I’m just kind of numb to a point where the VA is just the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to giving me an opportunity to come out ans scream and yell,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Jessie Jane Duff, who is now a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.
“I am frustrated beyond belief. I understand this is a new administration. I’m willing to give the new secretary of the Veterans Administration an opportunity to correct these issues. But I do hope that bringing this forward in the first 50 some odd days of this administration, they’d take it very seriously,” said Duff.
She says veteran suicides are a major problem and forcing vets in crisis to wait long periods is not helpful.
“They have 20 veterans a day killing themselves. Twenty veterans a day; this is by the VA’s own stats themselves. So then to put them on hold for 30 minutes. Do you not think that’s not potentially contributing to the suicide rate?” asked Duff.
The report also shows the VA is distorting the wait time for veterans by declaring that calls forwarded to overflow centers are never really on hold.
“To have them wait 30 minutes is ridiculous. And then the excuses they give. They said they’re not being put on hold because they were re-routed to an overflow center. They said, ‘Well, we didn’t put them on hold.’ Quit patting yourself on the back. To a caller, that was waiting 30 minutes. In that time they could have pulled the trigger or driven off the bridge,” said Duff.
Deflecting blame infuriates Duff as much as the incompetence.
“Who is going to be held accountable for this. The staff obviously doesn’t get fired. There’s obviously minimal recourse for the veterans who are left on hold. What are they left to do. Reporting it doesn’t seem to be getting them anywhere,” said Duff.
Duff says this seems like an easy fix.
“You would have to centralize where this system is located and you would have to enable it with an efficient and effective staff. They should be like a 911 call center. 911 does not place you on hold. It’s as simple as that. It should be considered an emergency,” said Duff.
Duff says something like this should be effectively addressed in three months or less. She also wants the VA to focus on care for veterans instead of trying to take away their second amendment rights because they’ve been deemed mentally incapable of handling their own financial affairs. The Justice Department imposed such an order and legislation is now underway to reverse that ruling.
“Mentally defective does not equate suicide, and if the VA cares so much about suicide, why aren’t they answering their phones,” said Duff.
When it comes to confronting union and freeing up the VA secretary to remove ineffective or incompetent personnel, Duff wants to see major results within a year. She says Secretary David Shulkin deserves a chance to do the job, but she says results should determine how long he stays there.
“For the bigger things. I expect (results) in a year. I’m not even talking midterms. If this doesn’t get corrected, somebody needs to be removed from this position and we need someone who’s willing to do the deep dive and go in there and dig,” said Duff.