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Chairman Roe: The Veterans Crisis Line Must Answer Every Single Call

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Today, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, chaired by Rep. Phil Roe, M.D. (R-Tenn.), held a hearing to assess ongoing concerns regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs Crisis Line (VCL).

Below are Chairman Roe’s opening remarks from today’s hearing:

Opening Remarks As Prepared for Delivery:

We are here today to discuss a topic that is a top priority for me, for this Committee, for the Secretary and his staff, and for the entire military and veteran community - the prevention of suicide among those who have served this country.

Sadly, suicide is an epidemic affecting not just servicemembers and veterans but our nation as a whole.

However, 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.

Probably the most important mission for us in this room to have is to ensure that VA meets the needs of veterans actively contemplating taking their own life.

The Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) - VA’s 24/7 suicide prevention and crisis intervention hotline for veterans, servicemembers, and their loved ones - is a critical tool to the accomplishment of that mission.

The VCL is meant to be VA’s first line of defense for those in the midst of life’s worst moments.

We cannot quantify the number of lives that have been saved since VCL was established a decade ago.

But, we know that more than 2.6 million calls have been answered and emergency responders have been dispatched to those in need almost 70 thousand times.

Demand for VCL’s services - which now include a call option, an online chat option, and a text messaging option - are growing.

However, over the last year, VCL has been the subject of three major investigations by the VA Inspector General (IG) and by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that have found serious management, organizational, and quality deficiencies in virtually every facet of VCL’s operations.

In February 2016, the IG found that some calls placed to the VCL were sent to voicemail and that VCL staff failed to properly monitor the quality of services provided and, in some cases, did not receive proper orientation or ongoing training.

Four months later - in June 2016 - GAO found that VCL failed to meet its call wait time goals and neglected to monitor the quality of the text message service.

Five months later - in November 2016 - Congress passed Congressman Young’s legislation, the No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act, in recognition of the findings made by the IG and GAO and the need for VCL to institute a robust quality management plan.

Yet, just last month, the IG published another report which found that VCL had failed to adequately respond to a veteran caller with urgent needs, that VA had instituted a VCL governance structure riddled with deficiencies that failed to include clinical perspectives and input, and that VCL was not appropriately training and overseeing certain staff.

Perhaps most troublingly, the IG also found that VA had failed to implement a single action plan to address the recommendations made in the IG’s initial report, even though VA had agreed with all of the recommendations and committed to implementing corrective actions by no later than last September.

I understand that the recommendations that GAO made in their report last summer are also all still open.

Given that, I question whether VA has yet to fully comply with the requirements of the No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act either.

That is not to say that VA hasn’t taken significant steps in the last year to address VCL’s shortcomings.

Since last spring, VCL has been realigned to the Office of Member Services, the number of calls that are routed to backup call centers has been drastically decreased, and VA has stood up an additional VCL call center in Atlanta, Georgia.

I believe those are positive developments and I hope to visit the VCL in-person in the coming months to see them for myself.

However, there is very clearly a need for more to be done - and soon - so that we can be assured that every veteran or family member who contacts the VCL gets the urgent help he or she needs every single time without fail or delay.

As a physician, I am particularly upset to hear that clinical input is not being appropriately incorporated into the operations and management of the VCL.

A crisis line, by its very definition, is not like any other call line.

For an entity like VCL, every missed opportunity can result in tragedy or the loss of life or limb.

According to VA’s own data, 20 veterans a day die by suicide.

The stakes - those 20 lives per day - are simply too high for VCL not to perform at the highest level.

VA is fortunate to have an abundance of mental health and suicide prevention experts working here in DC and across the country and their knowledge and expertise should be incorporated into VCL processes and procedures at every level.

I look forward to hearing this morning how VA is going to make sure that happens and when all of the recommendations for improvement that the IG and GAO have made over last year are going to be fully implemented.

I also look forward to hearing any and every suggestion our witnesses or my fellow Committee Members might have for what more we can do to improve not only the VCL but also VA’s other mental health and suicide prevention programs as well.

Our mission won’t be over until not a single servicemember or veteran ever feels helpless or hopeless enough to consider suicide.

I appreciate our witnesses for being here to discuss this important topic with us this morning and, with that, I will now yield to Ranking Member Walz for any opening statement that he might have.

You can watch the full hearing here
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Tags: Health

United States Military

  • U.S. Army
  • U.S. Marines
  • U.S. Navy
  • U.S. Air Force
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • National Guard
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