Workers at VA Suicide Hotline Justly Criticized for Poor Work Habits, Failing Veterans

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More than a third of troubled veterans are not getting through to the best trained suicide-hotline staffers because of poor work habits at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ call center, according to VA emails obtained by USA TODAY.

Some workers handle only one to five calls each day and leave before their shifts end even though phone lines have gotten busier, the emails say. As a result, 35% to 50% of the calls roll over to back-up centers where workers have less training to deal with the emotional problems of former servicemembers.

“There are staff who spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity,” then-crisis line director Greg Hughes complained in a May 13 email to the hotline staff. Hughes left the position June 17. “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.” His email suggested that as many as half the workforce was underperforming.

The VA, which confirmed the authenticity of the emails, has been swamped with calls since opening in 2007. The volume increased from fewer than 10,000 in 2007 to more than 500,000 last year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

A 2010 calculation by the VA estimates that 22 veterans kill themselves each day. The VA, which has not updated that estimate, says the hotline “rescues” 30 veterans from suicide each day.

Thirteen days after Hughes’ May 13 email  message, he drafted a second email saying that the rollover rate had improved slightly to 35% to 40% of calls rolled over to the backup center, down from 45% to 50% when he sent his first message. Still, “We staff to a certain level and then we do not have that coverage because we have staff who routinely request to leave early,” Hughes wrote in the May 25 email.

Sloan Gibson, deputy director of the VA, who has set a goal of zero calls going to back-up centers by Sept. 30, told USA TODAY he is unhappy about the staff problems.

“The first reaction is that it pisses me off,” Gibson said. “The second reaction is that we got good leadership in place and we’re moving to effect dramatic change.”

The VA’s efforts to provide suicide hotline counseling have taken a battering this year. Last year, the work of the hotline staff was movingly portrayed in an HBO film, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, which received an Oscar for best documentary, short subject. But in February, an inspector general investigation revealed that some of the in-coming calls early last year had rolled over to back-up centers and gone to voicemail.

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SOURCE:  Gregg Zoroya
USA TODAY