VA reports quicker responses and fewer calls going to a backup center

CANANDAIGUA — The Veterans Crisis Line — which has been criticized for calls rolling to voicemail, dropped calls and veterans put on hold for long periods — received a glowing report Friday.

U.S. Reps. Chris Collins, R-Clarence and Phil Roe, a Republican from Tennessee who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, discussed improvements following a tour of the crisis center at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.

“The biggest problem we’ve had is timely access to care, so this is basically the front porch to that,” said Roe, after seeing the crisis center that opened in 2007 and is now one of two centers at the forefront of the VA’s efforts to address the alarming rate of veteran suicide. The call centers, in Canandaigua and Atlanta, Georgia, answer phone calls, texts and online messages from veterans, military members and their families.

“It’s very disturbing to me, the number of veterans we are losing to suicide, and not just veterans but Americans,” said Roe, a Vietnam veteran and physician. “When you lose more men and women to suicide than combat, something needs to be done.”

Roe and Collins were pleased with what they saw and heard. A panel of VA staff involved with the Crisis Line in Building 37, where dispatchers work the center, discussed improvements with the congressmen. Among those: the Veterans Crisis Line averaged 2,300 calls in the month of September at both call centers. Of those, an average of 1.3 percent of calls (about 30 calls) rolled over to a backup center. When phone lines are busy, calls are routed to another contracted call center. In the past few days that percentage dropped to less than half a percent.

The crisis line is now answering calls, on average, in 7.5 seconds, with 99 percent of calls answered within 20 seconds.

“I am very impressed, it was a great tour,” said Collins, whose district covers much of Western New York and part of the Finger Lakes including Canandaigua. “Folks here care about our veterans, their dedication is clear,” he said.

The VA plans to open a third call center this fall on the VA campus in Topeka, Kansas.

About 200 responders work at the Atlanta facility, and 310 work at the Canandaigua center, according to a Sept. 14 report by the military publication Stars and Stripes. The Topeka facility will bring the number of employees staffing the veterans crisis line to 610.

During the press conference, the congressmen were also asked about a federal funding cut of millions of dollars for the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester. At issue is a $2.1 million grant that the VOC has received annually for the last six years that was not renewed for 2018. The VOC of Rochester was one of 36 previous recipients of the funds through the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program that did not get renewed.

The center in Rochester helps veterans in seven local counties and their families find reliable housing. The lack of funds would scale back services, and a satellite office at the Veteran’s Outreach Center in Buffalo could close with staff losing jobs or being reassigned.

Roe said he couldn’t say why the funds were cut. Collins mentioned a possible “paperwork snafu.” Collins said this is not a partisan issue and he was going to fix the problem, beginning that afternoon, working with others in Congress.

 

 

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— Call Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1 to talk to someone now.

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