Who is watching out for America’s veterans in crisis?


BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – It is the message of the Internet pushup challenge, known as “22Kill”—a worldwide movement to raise money, but more importantly, raise awareness of veterans who choose to end their lives every day. The 22 represents the toll officials have set for years, of 22 veterans committing suicide every day, but now say it is 20/day.

On the Internet, 22Kill has gone viral, but critics of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs accuse the agency of letting many desperate veterans down who are crying out for help on the VA’s crisis hotline.

The VA’s Office of Inspector General found, during peak periods, 1 out of every 6 calls into the Veterans Crisis Line are redirected to a secondary call center, and might not get answered. The former director of the VCL in Canandaigua, NY, Greg Hughes, has said 1 out of 3 calls don’t get answered.

Chris Kreiger, who leads a veterans self-help group based in Clarence, NY, is infuriated by that lack of care, as he recalled saving a desperate veteran who called him early one morning recently, “was down at the river in North Tonawanda and deciding whether it was worth taking his own life or not.”

Kreiger, president of WNY Heroes, Inc., is thoroughly outraged knowing some staffers at the VA call center in Canandaigua, whose jobs are handling crisis calls from veterans, don’t seem to be taking their jobs as seriously as they should.

The tragic result, says Kreiger, a tragic end for 20 veterans a day, “For many of these veterans, you have to sit back and wonder, could that phone call they would have taken really truly have saved their life? Or because you did not take it, is that why they ended their life? They felt like there was absolutely nobody out there who would listen.”

Kreiger is familiar with the Inspector General’s report that indicates when calls into the Veterans Crisis Line are redirected to a backup call center, they often end up in voicemail, and because staff at the backup center might not have known about the voicemail, those calls would not get returned.

“You have these men and women today that are calling these hotlines–looking for the help–and it is going to voicemail? That’s absurd.”

Many veterans find it tragically ironic that as Americans drop to the ground to do the 22 pushups as part of the 22Kill campaign, those who are actually seeking help through the VA might not get it.

Getting back to that call from veteran by the river in North Tonawanda, Kreiger said he and a police escort located the veteran, and got him to the VA Medical Center in Buffalo.

“That is no different than the call center in Canandaigua. If they are not going to answer their phones, would that veteran still be here? Or would [he] finally say enough is enough, and commit suicide?”

A spokesperson for the Dept. of Veterans Affairs indicated the VA is taking several measures to improve service for the Veterans Crisis Line, and they are detailed in a question and answer dialogue below.

Most importantly, if you are a veteran in crisis, or know of one, the Veterans Crisis Line can be accessed by phone at 1-800-273-8255, by text message, or in a confidential online chat. Start by clicking on the VCL website.

Here is the Q&A email exchange between News 4 and a spokesperson for the Veterans Health Administration, detailing the improvements planned or already implemented for the Veterans Crisis Line:

QUESTION 1: Is that true, are more than a third of the calls to the hotline not being answered by front-line staffers at the call center? Are poor work habits a problem for staffers at the call center? If so, is that issue being addressed?

VCL is implementing a comprehensive workforce management system and optimized staffing pattern to provide immediate service from VCL staff to each caller with an experience of zero wait time with 0% rollover to contracted back-up centers by November 21, 2016. In August 2016, VCL experienced an average rollover of 21% to contracted VCL back-up centers.

VCL has executed an improved supervisory to employee ratio, tracking and trending of time spent throughout the shift by each employee, and implementation of scheduled employee lunch & break times, all with the purpose of greater staff accountability, phone line coverage, and increase in overall number of calls taken by each responder. VCL Quality Assurance program monitoring revealed an average of 99.4% successful calls with opportunities for improvement identified. A successful call is one that reduces risk of suicide to the caller, even if opportunities for improvement are identified.

QUESTION 2: Has staff been added since the release of the VA Office of Inspector General’s report in February? Are there plans for hiring additional staff?

VCL is hiring 507 responders to meet the needs of Veterans in crisis. A secondary VCL site in Atlanta, Georgia will be at full operational mode December 2016 to support increased staffing capability and geographic redundancy; however 44 responders are anticipated to be trained and taking crisis calls in October 2016. Additionally, 166 responders will be hired over the next two months to support this initiative.

QUESTION 3: Are there plans to open a new phone hub, and would it serve as a backup call center, or would it receive the initial crisis calls?

As mentioned above, establishment of a secondary VCL site for increased staffing capability and geographic redundancy in Atlanta, Georgia is scheduled to be operational in October 2016, with 44 responders taking crisis calls. This site will be staffed by VA Responders and would receive the initial crisis calls. Veterans are anticipated to experience zero wait time with 0% rollover to contracted back-up centers by November 21, 2016.

QUESTION 4: Has there been any improvement in the call center’s responsiveness to crisis calls since February?

• VCL has streamlined and standardized how crisis calls from other locations reach the VCL, including full implementation of the automatic transfer function that directly connects Veterans who call their local VA Medical Center to VCL by pressing a single digit (Press 7) during the initial automated phone greeting. Currently, 126 medical centers have this option, with Press 7 fully implemented at all VA Medical Centers by October 20, 2016.
• VCL Quality Assurance program monitoring revealed an average of 99.4% successful calls with opportunities for improvement identified. A successful call is one that reduces risk of suicide to the caller, even if opportunities for improvement are identified.
• Gauging the impact of our services by gathering caller feedback through an end of call satisfaction question.
• Cataloging and reviewing compliments and complaints from callers to determine what is working well and identify opportunities for improvement.

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