Press Releases

Dr. Roe & Chairman Miller: VA Crisis Line Failures Indicative of Pervasive Culture of Unaccountability

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For Immediate Release, September 29, 2016 | Tiffany Haverly (202-226-8072) | comments

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-TN) and Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) sent a letter to VA Secretary McDonald regarding a recent Associated Press story alleging that employees of the VA’s crisis hotline routinely ask to leave early and rarely spend their time “engaged in productive activity.” The claims were made by the former director of the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line, Greg Hughes.  

The letter, found here, requests an explanation from the secretary detailing how the VA plans to hold employees like those mentioned in the report accountable.

“This is unbelievable, and I am outraged by the VA’s continued disregard for our nation’s heroes,” said Rep. Roe. “On one hand you have the VA’s Undersecretary for Health, Dr. David Shulkin, calling for an end to veteran suicide, and on the other you have call center operators ducking their responsibilities and collecting a paycheck while veterans suffer. The rhetoric you hear from the VA rarely matches reality, and I am glad to partner with Chairman Miller to demand answers from the VA.”   

“VA leaders love to talk about holding people accountable, but they hate to actually do it. Proof of this sad fact can be found at VA facilities across the country, where whistleblower retaliation and wait-time manipulation are routinely tolerated, and problem employees, such as those who participate in armed robberies, are protected. And as long as department leaders openly tolerate laziness and incompetence – as they are doing at the Veterans Crisis Line – VA will never be fixed.” – Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Letter text:

The Honorable Robert A. McDonald

Secretary

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20420

Dear Secretary McDonald:

We are writing to express grave concerns about the unacceptable practices brought to light by Mr. Greg Hughes, the former director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Veterans Crisis Line, which were detailed in an Associated Press article entitled, “Official: One-third of calls to VA suicide hotline roll over.” Mr. Hughes’ claims about the staff and culture at VA’s crisis call center clearly demonstrate a culture completely lacking in accountability. Mr. Hughes claims that employees “spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity.” Moreover, Mr. Hughes makes the assertion that staff answer fewer than five calls per day and routinely request to leave early. We respectfully request you provide us with a detailed explanation of how you plan to hold VA employees like the ones Mr. Hughes describes accountable.

Unfortunately, this is not simply a case of one rogue department in the agency, but indicative of the pervasive culture of unaccountability at the agency that has continued despite repeated calls for change by Congress, America’s veterans and the public at large. Repeatedly, in hearings highlighting instances of mismanagement where subordinate staff ignores, subverts or refuses to follow directions, we are told that VA will rectify this culture, but change does not come and there is no accountability. The VA’s Undersecretary for Health, Dr. David Shulkin, has called for an end to veterans’ suicide, naming it as one of VA’s top priorities, but once again the reality at the VA doesn’t seem to match the rhetoric. Crisis call centers are critical to the VA’s mission to end veterans’ suicide, which is why it’s troubling to read reports that call center operators do not take their responsibilities seriously.

If there is no accountability for failing to perform the duty of taking care of veterans who are thinking about suicide, then in essence we are telling the rest of the VA that there is no behavior they can engage in at work, or line that they can cross, that is serious enough to warrant termination. Failure to hold people accountable for this type of behavior also renders meaningless any future proposal for strengthening the hotline since it will be clear that no one will insist on individuals performing their jobs.

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has, on numerous occasions, listened to VA officials tell lawmakers they have a plan to improve the culture which prevents VA from being a world-class medical provider. To this point, these words have rung hollow, and there seems to be no plan in place to change the corrosive culture that pervades the system, in order to ensure our veterans receive the best health care available, and the best counseling available in times of crisis.

While we appreciate and thank you for your continued dedication to the veterans of this great nation, this is unacceptable and must be corrected immediately. We look forward to working diligently with you to ensure this situation is corrected and veterans receive the treatment, counseling and community they have earned through their service. We appreciate your prompt consideration of these concerns.

Note: On Monday, the House unanimously approved H.R. 5392, the No Veterans Crisis Line Calls Should Go Unanswered Act. H.R. 5392 requires the VA to develop a plan to ensure each telephone call and text message to the VA crisis line is answered by a qualified call center operator in a timely manner.
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