(CNN) – 2016 has been a troubled year for the under-staffed veterans’ suicide hotline, which was profiled in an Academy Award winning documentary the year before.
In February, the VA Inspector General revealed “that some calls routed to backup crisis centers were answered by voicemail, and callers did not always receive immediate assistance.”
In September, Congress learned that the former director of the veterans’ crisis line had said in an internal e-mail that more than a third of calls aren’t being answered by front line staffers. Instead, their being rolled to back-up call centers where staff may have less training.
The VA has tried to fix this problem. This week, a new 200 person call center in Atlanta was celebrated with much promise from VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson.
Gibson said, “I’ve got to tell you, getting stuff done inside the federal government is really hard. And the idea that in about 150 days these guys went from a standing start to answering calls down here and hiring more than 200 additional staff – in the federal government that’s like light speed.”
However, two years after testifying before Congress, VA whistleblower Scott Davis, who works one floor down from the call center in Atlanta, told CNN that there remain big problems that may not be easily solved.
Problems like this, highlighted in an October complaint to the VA Inspector General from a suicidal veteran, claiming the person on the line left the call twice. Or in November, a troubled veteran called the Atlanta office and Davis’ colleagues could not patch him through.
Davis said, “It is so bad that when our own office tried to call the crisis line, no one answered the phone. Someone actually had to walk up from the fourth floor to go to the fifth floor to get someone to take a veteran’s call.”
In February, the VA Inspector General noted that not enough is being done to track how effective the call centers are, when it comes to “patient outcomes or other quality indicators.”
Davis said this remains a problem; “Currently, we don’t even have a standardization for quality assurance. That’s something basic that you would have for a call center for a credit card company, for a cable company.”
Gibson said, “In the past, it was difficult for us because we didn’t have the management information that would allow us to go back – and what responder did they speak to? How much can that responder reconstruct the phone call? Now what we have to do is use the foundation and leverage off of it to deliver better outcomes.”
An internal memo show the number of abandoned or unanswered calls did not decrease from April to September of this year.
Gibson said, “We’re not going to be perfect, but we’re trying to build as much rigor into system into the process as we can so that we operate more like a high-reliability organization. We are within days of being at a point where pretty consistently we’re not rolling any calls over.”
But with stakes this high, Davis remains concerned about the cost of failure; “If this isn’t addressed is that you’re going to have the number of veterans that commit suicide on a daily basis at 20 or more a day, which is simply unacceptable.”
The VA crisis line number is 1-800-273-8255.