President Obama signed into law last week a bill that will strengthen oversight of the veteran crisis line at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was one of the cosponsors of the measure, which came after revelations that crisis calls went unanswered. The crisis line is a toll-free number that provides confidential support to veterans and their family members 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The work of the hot line staff at the VA's Canandaigua, N.Y, call center was chronicled in an HBO film, "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1," which won an Oscar for best short documentary. But in February, an inspector general investigation revealed that some of the incoming calls early last year had rolled over to backup centers and gone to voice mail.
In addition, e-mails from the former director of the crisis line revealed that more than one-third of the calls rolled over to backup call centers where staff do not have the expertise or training to handle veterans in crisis. Several news outlets earlier this year published e-mails from May in which Gregory Hughes, the former crisis line director, indicated that some staff members were taking only one to five calls a day.
Hughes, who was hired in January to bring stability to the troubled program, resigned June 17.
Meanwhile, another government watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, released a report that found the crisis line was not meeting its call response time goals, and text messages sent to the group sometimes went unanswered. The investigation found that while VA's goal is to answer 90 percent of the calls at the crisis line's primary center within 30 seconds, an estimated 73 percent of 119 calls tracked within that time frame didn't meet that standard.
In October, David Shulkin, the VA's undersecretary for health, wrote in an Op-Ed piece distributed to several news organizations that the VA is doubling the size of its crisis line, opening a new hub in Atlanta and using best-in-class business practices to improve capacity and effectiveness. When backup is needed, the VA utilizes the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, he wrote.
"To our veterans who feel they are at the brink with no place to turn, please know that we are here for you and will always be there to answer your call," he wrote.
The bipartisan No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act, authored in the Senate by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D, and in the House by Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, requires the VA to develop a quality assurance plan to identify performance metrics and objectives to improve the effectiveness of the crisis line. The legislation would also require the VA to develop a plan to ensure that each call is answered in a timely fashion.
"Part of this is putting in place a clear mandate from Congress that there be change, but it's also calling attention to it. Sometimes the best way to get change is to get those numbers known," Klobuchar said. "Our veterans deserve the best. When they signed up no one was putting them on hold. "
Klobuchar said VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who has a corporate background, has focused on metrics and indicators of success. The bill is designed to establish a quality assurance process.
The VA has made reforms, but Klobuchar said she still has concerns with issues such as access to the VA in rural areas. She believes that privatizing large portions of the VA, which has been proposed as President-elect Donald Trump constructs his new Cabinet, would not be the answer.
"The key is to reform it and improve it and not destroy it," she said.