Addressing Veterans Crisis Line Shortcomings
When a man or woman in our armed forces takes their oath to support and defend the Constitution of our country, our country in turn makes a promise to them, first made by President Lincoln, to take care of them when they return from duty as they transition back into civilian life. The men and women who keep this country safe deserve the best care we have to offer. It is an honor to serve as Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which is why I am committed to ensuring our veterans are served with the respect and dignity they deserve.
There are few issues more important than our efforts to help our veterans who are struggling with thoughts of suicide. Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) released the most comprehensive analysis of veteran suicide data to-date, and found that the risk of suicide was 21 percent higher for veterans than it was for non-veterans. According to VA’s own data, 20 veterans commit suicide each day. Because of this mental health crisis, VA has established a hotline, the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL), that should be providing 24/7 crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to veterans.
This week, I chaired a Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing to address serious shortcomings that have been uncovered with the VCL. Over the last year, VCL has been the subject of two major investigations by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). These investigations have found serious management, organizational and quality deficiencies in virtually every facet of VCL’s operations. The OIG found that many calls to the VCL were sent to back-up call centers, and the monitoring system the VCL provided lacked accountability. After further investigation into VCL, investigators found that some call center operators failed to meet their call wait time goals, neglected to monitor the quality of the text message service, failed to adequately respond to a veteran caller with urgent needs and did not train or oversee certain staff members appropriately. This is unacceptable.
In November 2016, I was proud to support legislation introduced by my friend and colleague Rep. David Young (R-IA), H.R. 5392, the No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act, which was signed into law. This law required VA to institute a quality management plan and produce a plan that ensures no calls from veterans go unanswered. In our hearing, we heard from the VA that the number of calls which are routed to backup call centers has been drastically decreased and the VA has opened an additional call center in Atlanta, Georgia to ensure all calls are being answered by a trained professional. While these are steps in the right direction, we also heard that there are other recommendations to improve the VCL that have not been implemented yet, so there is still work to be done.
As an Army veteran, I feel deeply connected to this issue. I saw firsthand how our returning service members were treated at the end of Vietnam. Both the visible and invisible wounds of service members are real and deep-seeded, and both should be treated seriously. In my first term in Congress, I was proud to join Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), who is now the VA Committee’s Ranking Member, to form the Invisible Wounds Caucus. This caucus is a bipartisan Congressional caucus formed to bring awareness to the men and women who are suffering from the invisible wounds of mental and other emotional trauma. As a nation, we must do a better job identifying mental illness and providing adequate mental health care for our returning service members.
To address the devastating issue of veterans’ suicide, we must raise awareness of and advocate for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and other wounds that are often invisible using VA and private resources. I look forward to continue pushing for changes to the way the VA treats veterans with invisible wounds, and will continue to support measures to improve mental health and suicide prevention programs in this country.As always, feel free to contact my office if I can be of assistance to you or your family.