Report: Veterans in Crisis Still Left Hanging By Help Line

Call center failing to answer calls in timely fashion

Veterans Affairs
Getty Images
April 8, 2017

Calls centers established to help veterans in crisis are still failing to answer calls for help in a timely fashion, according to a new government oversight report disclosing that some veterans are still not receiving help in times of crisis.

Government investigators with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) "found that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) did not meet its call response-time goals for the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL)," according to the report that found issues with the center's text messaging line and live call centers.

The VA crisis centers are supposed to answer 90 percent of crisis calls within 30 seconds. An investigation of covert calls to the centers found that this goal is still not being met, according to the report, which found that just 65 to 75 percent of calls were answered in the required time.

Text messages to the center were not responded to in 4 of 14 instances.

"Specifically, 119 covert test calls showed that an estimated 73 percent of calls made during this period were answered within 30 seconds," according to the report. "GAO also covertly tested the VCL's text messaging services and found that 4 of 14 GAO test text messages did not receive responses."

Answering calls in a timely fashion is of critical importance when dealing with veterans with mental health crises. The VA's failure to meet established standards shows that some veterans are still falling through the cracks.

Around 25 to 35 percent of calls placed to VA centers were sent to a backup call line, according to the report.

While the VA has taken steps to improve its phone center monitoring by establishing an evaluation team and complaint center, the agency still is failing to measure its target goals.

Investigators "found that VA had not specified quantifiable or otherwise measurable targets and had not included dates for when it would expect the VCL to complete actions covered by each key performance indicator," the report found.

While the VA has been instructed to formulate goals and measure targets and timeframes to improve its service, it failed as recently as March 2017 to carry out this task.

The VA is not properly monitoring issues with its crisis call centers. VA officials informed government investigators in 2016 "that they did not monitor and test the timeliness and performance of the VCL [Veteran Crisis Line] text messaging system, but rather relied solely on the VCL's text messaging service provider for such monitoring and testing."

Officials claimed the third-party provider had not reported any issues with the system. However, the provider admitted it does not perform any routine testing of the call center's text messaging system.

Confusion remains between the VA and the Department of Health and Human Services, which manages similar programs. Some callers trying to reach the veterans line were instead connected to HHS's local crisis centers.

The call system itself remains confusing to users. Callers are prompted to press the number "1" to reach a veteran crisis line, but there is confusion about connecting veterans to the proper services.

Investigators ran their own operation to test the confusion.

"To mimic the experience of callers who did not press '1' to reach the VCL when prompted, we made 34 covert non-generalizable test calls to the national toll-free number that connects callers to both Lifeline and the VCL during August 2015 and we did not press '1' to be directed to the VCL," according to the report.

"For 23 of these 34 calls, our call was answered in 30 seconds or less," the report said, although "for 11 of these calls, we waited more than 30 seconds for a responder to answer—including 3 calls with wait times of 8, 9, and 18 minutes."

Additionally, "one of our test calls did not go through, and during another test call we were asked if we were safe and able to hold," the report stated.