No help?

Jason Sickles - 6/30/2016

Internal emails raise questions about counselors’ work habits at the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide hotline. (Yahoo News Photo Illustration/ Photos: Getty/AP)
Internal emails have raised questions about counselors’ work habits at the Veterans Affairs suicide hotline. (Photo Illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: Getty/AP)

Veterans contemplating taking their own lives may not be reaching the most qualified counselors when they call the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide hotline, a USA Today report reveals.

The newspaper, citing internal VA emails they obtained, reports some of the government’s best-trained suicide-hotline staffers — facing an even higher workload with the volume of calls at record levels ­— were handling only one to five calls day and leaving work early.

Poor work habits, USA Today reports, have recently resulted in 35 percent to 50 percent of calls rolling over to backup centers where counselors don’t have access to veterans’ electronic medical records and are less experienced in dealing with the emotional problems of former service members.

"There are staff who spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity,” former VA call center director Greg Hughes wrote in a May 13 email obtained by the newspaper. "If we continue to roll over calls because we have staff that are not making an honest effort, then we are failing at our mission.”

The Veterans Crisis Line — which allows troubled veterans to reach counselors via telephone, web chat or text messaging — experienced a nearly 700 percent increase in phone calls between 2008 and 2015.

A 2012 report by VA researchers estimated that 18 to 22 veterans commit suicide each day, but those calculations have been scrutinized by some for being too high.

The number of calls received by the VA suicide hotline increased almost 700 percent from fiscal year 2008 to 2015, according to a recent government audit. (GAO screenshot)
The number of calls received by the VA suicide hotline increased almost 700 percent from 2008 to 2015, according to a recent government audit. (Government Accountability Office screenshot)

The allegations made in the internal emails come on the heels of a recent congressional investigative report that questioned the call center’s responsiveness to contacts made via mobile text.

According to Government Accountability Office auditors, four of their 14 test text messages did not receive a response from VA staffers. Of the remaining 10 test text messages, eight received responses within two minutes, and two received responses within five minutes, states the report made public this week.

"VA officials stated that text messages are expected to be answered immediately, but, as with online chats, the VA has not yet developed formal performance standards for how quickly responders should answer text messages,” auditors wrote.

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1a 2013 HBO documentary, won an Oscar for its poignant portrayal of the VA’s hotline staff’s emotional efforts.

When calls don’t get answered, they are forwarded to a network of 164 private, nonprofit phone banks that also provide 24/7 services for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. A 2015 Inspector General investigation found that some incoming calls from veterans went to voicemail after rolling over to the backup centers.

"The first reaction is that it pisses me off,” said VA deputy director Sloan Gibson, when USA Today questioned him about the report of poor work habits. "The second reaction is that we got good leadership in place, and we’re moving to effect dramatic change.”

Gibson and other officials said they are currently adding counselors and taking steps to improve quality of care.

"I step back from this, and I look at it and I see a function, an activity, that has been chronically undermanaged for years,” Gibson told the newspaper.

Hughes, the call center’s former director, left his position two weeks ago for family reasons, USA Today reported.

In a second email before resigning, Hughes wrote the call rollover rate had improved during the month of May, but that the center didn’t have the manpower to allow for absent workers.

"We staff to a certain level, and then we don’t have that coverage because we have staff who routinely request to leave early,” Hughes wrote on May 25.

Compounding the workload problem, Gibson told the newspaper in a separate story, is that four veterans are believed to have called the hotline 5,619 times in May, tying up phone lines with "abusive, vulgar and profane” language.

A spokeswoman said the VA has identified the veterans and will be "restricting their calls only after a consultation with clinicians at their local VA medical centers to ensure that these four veterans can be cared for appropriately.”

(To contact the VA’s crisis line, call 1-800-273-8255 and press "1” for veteran services. Veterans chat can be accessed at Veterans text is available at 838255.)

Jason Sickles is a national reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).