A key Senate Republican is demanding a full investigation into whistleblowers’ accusations that Veterans Crisis Line staffers are ignoring calls from some hostile or problematic veterans rather than providing prompt emergency mental health care.
In a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs leadership sent Tuesday, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said the allegations represent “gross mismanagement creating a danger to the health and safety of veterans nationwide.”
Republican committee staffers said officials from the Government Accountability Office have already committed to investigating the claims, filed by multiple current and former staffers of the suicide prevention hotline to Moran’s office in recent weeks.
Veterans Affairs officials did not respond to requests for comment on the whistleblower complaints.
The Veterans Crisis Line has seen a rapid expansion in recent years, growing from about 900 full-time employees in early 2021 to more than 1,800 today. It has also seen a dramatic rise in demand since last summer, when federal officials launched a new three-digit dialing system — 988 — for individuals seeking emergency mental health care.
Whistleblowers told Senate staff that extra workload has prompted leadership at the Veterans Crisis Line to establish a special unit designed to handle “callers with complex needs.” Individuals who present erratic or hostile behavior towards VA staff can be sent to those specialists instead of going to the next available worker.
But whistleblowers said the special unit is understaffed, and many of those rerouted calls are simply dropped or lost. Moran said those reports raise “grave concerns” about operations at the crisis line.
The number of callers affected is unknown because of incomplete record keeping with those interactions, Senate staff said. Whistleblowers said rules regarding when to transfer callers to specialists are also unclear.
The Veterans Crisis Line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and bills itself as a consistent, reliable support service for veterans, troops and family members. Operators have responded to more than 6 million contacts since it launched in 2007 and issued more than 1 million referrals to local suicide prevention offices.
About 17 veterans a day die by suicide, according to the latest estimates by the Department of Veterans Affairs. That number grows to around 20 a day when active duty troops, Guardsmen and reservists are also factored in.
Veterans in need of emergency counseling can reach the Veterans Crisis Line by dialing 988 and selecting option 1 after connecting to reach a VA staffer. In addition, veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 for help, or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.