VA Crisis Line under investigation

Amid concerns that the Veterans Affairs Department’s suicide hotline has left veterans stranded during high-volume call periods, a senator has asked VA to investigate the service to ensure it is meeting veterans’ needs.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., recently sent a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald asking for data on the Crisis Line’s call volume, hold times, and average wait times between when a call is made and the caller can see a VA therapist or counselor, or a community provider, in person.

Nelson’s request was made in response to a news report by Tampa television station WFTS that Air Force veteran Ted Koran was placed on hold repeatedly for up to 10 minutes at a time as he fought off suicidal thoughts.

According to the report, Koran’s wife died of cancer last year and he was despondent the day he made the call.

But when he dialed, he was placed on hold numerous times. After he reached a counselor, he said he did not feel comforted, according to the report.

“They had me on the [verge] of saying to hell with it,” he said, according to WFTS.

Since its creation in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has fielded more than 1.6 million calls and is credited with 48,000 rescues, according to VA.

The line, based at a VA center in Canandaigua, New York, receives about 1,400 calls a day and can handle about 1,000, with the rest sent to five backup centers across the U.S. that are staffed by VA-trained contractors.

When a short documentary about the Crisis Line was awarded the Oscar this year for Documentary Short, comments from readers on the Military Times websites ranged from praise (“superb”) to frustration (“infuriatingly circular,” “no help at all”).

VA officials said Friday that it is not the hotline’s policy to place callers on hold.

A VA spokeswoman said the calls that the department knows about which were put on hold were calls to civilian crisis lines.

“Reaching civilian crisis lines can happen if callers dial the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number and do not press 1,” the spokeswoman said.

Furthermore, she added, it’s against crisis line standard practice to put callers on hold, unless there is a need to contact a third party, such as emergency services or the police.

Calls answered by the New York line were answered within 30 seconds until recently, when the standard was changed to 60 seconds to increase the likelihood that the call would be answered by personnel at Canandaigua.

The crisis line, with an annual budget of $27 million and responder staff of 255, is undergoing a major restructuring, including improvements to phone lines and technology and changes in scheduling, policies and infrastructure, according to VA.

The changes are being made, the official said, to ensure that the line “continues to be a world-class crisis call center for veterans.”

A Scripps news investigation released on the day of the Oscars, Feb. 23, said crisis line complaints have triggered a VA Office of Inspector General investigation into the service.

An estimated 22 veterans die by suicide each day, according to VA, although that number is inexact because it derives from various sources that do not consistently list suicide as a cause of death, even when it may be suspected.

Nelson did not give VA a deadline to respond to his request. But he said ensuring that the Crisis Line works efficiently is “an imperative.”

“Don’t tell me that veterans call … and they can’t get an answer — or are put on hold and they’re desperate, about to commit suicide,” he said. “I want to know why. And I want to know what’s being done, not only to fix this immediately but make sure it never happens again.”

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