More than a third of calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs' suicide hotline aren't being answered by front-line staffers because of poor work habits and other problems, according to the hotline's former director.
Some hotline workers handle fewer than five calls per day and leave before their shifts end, even as crisis calls have increased sharply in recent years, said Greg Hughes, the former director of the VA's Veterans Crisis Line.
Thirty-five percent to 40 percent of crisis calls received in May rolled over to backup centers where workers have less training to deal with veterans' problems, Hughes, who left his job in June, wrote in an internal email.
Hughes said some crisis line staffers "spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity." Coverage at the crisis line suffers "because we have staff who routinely request to leave early," he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a longtime advocate for veterans, tweeted Monday that the failure to answer calls was "absolutely unacceptable."
The VA said Monday that it is increasing staff at the New York-based hotline and opening a new hub in Atlanta. The agency also pledged to continue efforts to improve training as it responds to a report by an internal watchdog that said crisis calls are routinely allowed to go into voicemail and that callers don't always receive immediate assistance.
The House is considering bill this week that would require that all calls, texts and other communications to the crisis line are answered in a timely manner by an appropriately qualified person. A similar Senate bill is in committee.
About 20 veterans commit suicide every day. The vast majority weren't connected to VA care in the last year of their lives, said David Shulkin, the VA's undersecretary for health.
"We are saving thousands of lives. But we will not rest as long as there are veterans who remain at risk," Shulkin said in a statement.