VA suicide hotline placing callers on hold, voicemail, report says

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation

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Thursday, February 18, 2016
VA suicide hotline scandal
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The ABC7 I-Team is investigating a new Veteran's Administration scandal.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The ABC7 I-Team is investigating a new Veteran's Administration scandal alleging that the VA's main suicide hotline has been putting vets on hold or sending callers to voicemail in their moment of need.

This is especially disturbing because 22 American military veterans commit suicide every day. And now, there are new findings that the VA's suicide hotline has been telling some callers to leave a message, while others are transferred to nowhere.

But the I-Team has learned that a new report by the VA Inspector General should come as no surprise to official Washington. They were given a similar report six years ago.

The VA's main suicide hotline, near Rochester, N.Y., is supposed to take calls 24/7 - but it has been called out by the VA Inspector General.

According to this report, whether the calls are from Chicago or Albuquerque, one of every six calls to the suicide line are redirected to backup centers because the crisis line is overloaded and sometimes then to voicemail.

It is not the impressive image portrayed in the VA public service announcements.

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, chairman of a Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, says the mishandled calls are a function of "corruption and incompetence at the VA which knows no boundaries."

But in what sounds like a broken record, a VA internal report six years ago found that all veterans phone lines were dysfunctional - not just the crisis hotline. In this report obtained by the I-Team, investigators found that inquiring veterans "reached an agent 76 percent of the time. Of those reaching an agent, agents answered 72 percent of their questions correctly."

The latest swipe at VA services comes as more veterans need help after Iraq, Afghanistan or even aging Vietnam vets.

Calls to these VA crisis centers are up 40 percent in the last reporting period.

One-fifth of all suicides in the U.S. are veterans. A VA official said the agency is working to upgrade the crisis hotline by hiring more staff and scheduling them better during peak call hours.

Read the 2016 VA report here

Read the 2010 VA report here