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Editorial: Answer that phone when suicidal veterans reach out

Inspectors cited a handful of VA nursing homes, including in Washington, for failing to meet standards of care in as many as 10 key categories, such as treating residents with dignity. | Getty Images

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When staffers do their jobs, the crisis hotline at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs saves lives of military veterans and active service members on the verge of suicide.

Callers to the hotline, which operates 24-7, have received emergency care more than 56,000 times since 2007, according to the VA’s website.

But anywhere from a third to half of calls aren’t being answered by hotline staff members because some workers slack off, USA Today reported Friday. In May former crisis line director Greg Hughes told staff that measures would be taken to improve productivity, according to an email obtained by the newspaper.

The VA, which has a bad history in recent years of failing our veterans, really must follow through on this one.

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Reaching someone at the VA call center in a time of despair can be the difference between life and death.

Calls that go unanswered by the VA hotline are routed to back-up centers. Last year some calls that rolled over ended up in voicemail.

In pointing out the flaws of the system, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, in a budget hearing earlier this year for veterans’ health and benefits administrations, told the story of Chicagoan Tom Young, an Army veteran who in 2015 killed himself after his call to the hotline went to voicemail at a back-up center. By the time he received a call back Young had taken his life.

Staffers at back-up centers aren’t trained to deal with particular needs of service members the way VA staffers are. That’s why Sloan Gibson, deputy director of the VA, wants no calls falling to back-up centers by Sept. 30.

Kirk also recently called for improved hotline responses via text messaging, citing a Government Accountability Office test that found 29 percent of texts to the hotline went unanswered.

That will put more pressure on VA call-center workers. Some take only one to five hotline calls a day, compared with productive workers who take 15 to 20 calls daily.

About two weeks after Hughes sent staff the email, fewer calls were routed to the back-up centers. From 45 percent to 50 percent of calls rolling over, 35 percent to 40 percent went to back-up centers, USA Today reported. That’s far from impressive.

Hughes said more training and support would be offered to those with low productivity. Those who didn’t improve or didn’t cooperate would face disciplinary measures.

Suicidal veterans cannot wait another day for the VA to get going on this.

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