The Veterans Administrations internal watchdog has found that the agency allowed crisis suicide calls to go to voicemail.
The report by the VA’s office of inspector general says calls to the suicide hotline have increased dramatically in recent years, as veterans increasingly seek services following prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the aging of Vietnam-era veterans.
The hotline received more than 450,000 calls in 2014, a massive 40% increase from the previous year.
The report said that 1 in 6 calls were redirected to backup centers when the line is overloaded. And more astonishing, some of the calls were directed to the backup center's voicemail, unbeknownst to employees that had no idea there was even a voicemail system.
Hotline callers “made numerous complaints of long wait times for responders, being put ‘on hold’ or calls ‘not being put through’ to a responder,” the report said.
“The VA’s failure to help our most vulnerable veterans is not only unacceptable, but it is shameful,” Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said. “The VA’s inability to run a call center and deal with increasing demand has put our nation’s veterans at greater risk.”
Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said the agency agrees with the report and is working to fix the crisis hotline. The VA is hiring more people to answer the phones who will work staggered shifts to better accommodate the veterans.
About one-fifth of all suicides in the United States are committed by veterans, and the VA has highlighted suicide prevention as a crucial area of concern. A law signed by President Barack Obama year requires the Pentagon and VA to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs and make information on prevention more easily available.
Advocacy group leader Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was disappointed in the report. “As the number of service members, veterans and their families reaching out to the Veterans Crisis Line continues to grow, the need for additional resources becomes more apparent,” Rieckhoff said.