AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Did Atlanta's veterans crisis hotline fall short in helping suicidal veterans?

VA officials touted a crisis hotline center launched in Atlanta last December as a cornerstone of a renewed push to curb the problem of veteran suicide.

More than 300 staff were hired and trained in Atlanta, and by April VA officials testified before Congress about the crisis line's success answering the needs of suicidal veterans. The new center and the one operating for years outside Rochester, New York had improved response to suicidal veterans and effectively eliminated the rollover of hotline calls to a backup contractor -- once problems for which the agency was sharply criticized.

So the announcement last week that VA plans to open a third crisis line call center in Topeka, Kansas later this year raised the question: Did VA officials inflate the success in Atlanta and once-again gloss over problems with the agency's suicide prevention efforts? It wouldn't be the first time senior leaders in the agency's VHA member services division misled veterans or touted success in the face of deep problems.

VA officials insist that's not the case with the crisis line, but a whistleblower says it is.

The agency says the need for a new call center with 100 more employees stems from a spike in calls since April, when Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management Steve Young testified before Congress. The crisis line centers are receiving an average of 1,106 more calls per week since April, in part, because the agency launched a new program for callers in crisis to local VA hospitals can press 7 to go directly to the hotline.

The crisis line hit a record for calls Labor Day week, totaling 16,621. The weekly average the past month has been 15,694. Roughly 20 veterans kill themselves each day, according to VA data.

"As the Press 7 feature is expanded to all community based outpatient clinics and vet centers, demand for (the crisis line) services will continue to grow," said VA spokesman Curt Cashour.

Before the launch of Atlanta's center the rollover rate had been above 30 percent. That means thousands of calls each week were going to a private contractor that was falling short to meet veterans needs.

Meanwhile, the average number of calls that roll over from the hotline to a backup private contractor has inched up to about 1.3 percent. The rollover rate in late March had dropped to 0.11 percent, according to Young's testimony.

"No independent body has reviewed VA's claims of success with the crisis line," said Scott Davis, a whistleblower in Atlanta who filed complaints last fall about the center with the VA Office of Inspector of General and Congress.

Davis said a presentation given to VA senior leadership in December in conjunction with the Atlanta center's opening mentions the Press 7 program and said nothing about a need for a third call center.  Trump transition officials were briefed last fall about the veterans crisis line and told it would reduce rollovers to zero percent.

"Press 7 was always an Atlanta crisis line duty," Davis said. "That was part of its justification."

Despite the success story touted by VA officials about the Atlanta call center, the man who oversaw launch of that project and was its public face ran into problems this year. Matt Eitutis, the former acting director of VHA member services, who testified alongside Young in April, is no longer involved with the center.

He was removed from his acting director position several months ago. He and three other managers are now facing an internal investigation after problems with the VA's national health enrollment system that surfaced in a scathing audit last month.

Eitutis was also linked to a botched effort by VA to clear-up a backlog of pending veterans health applications, a problem that has plagued the national Health Eligibility Center based in the same building in Atlanta as the crisis line.

VA has named Dr. Matthew Miller as permanent director of the crisis line, Cashour said.



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