- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 3, 2014

While first lady Michelle Obama has personally crusaded to end veteran homelessness, the Veterans Affairs marquee program to address the problem has stumbled badly in outreach to homeless veterans, failing to answer, check on or provide prompt service to tens of thousands who called its help line, an internal investigation found.

Of the estimated 79,500 homeless veterans who contacted the VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans last year, nearly 27 percent were unable to reach a counselor and had to leave messages, 16 percent could not be referred to VA medical facilities because their messages were inaudible or lacked contact information, and 4 percent were not referred to VA facilities at all, the VA’s internal watchdog reported Wednesday.

“The Call Center lacked adequate management and operational controls to ensure homeless veterans had around-the-clock access to counselors and received needed homeless support services,” the inspector general reported.

The VA-staffed call center, located in Canandaigua, New York, is the primary vehicle for the agency to communicate with veterans and community providers about support programs and services for homeless veterans. Theoretically, homeless veterans can call 24 hours a day seven days a week and speak with a trained counselor.

But the inspector general identified 40,500 cases last year in which the call center did not refer homeless veterans to medical facilities or it closed referrals without following up with the VA to ensure the veterans received care.

In response to the report, Veterans Health Administration officials said they would develop a plan to strengthen services and availability at the call center, but added that 24/7 operations might be abandoned “to better conform to current and historical inbound call patterns.”

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The audit is the latest to expose the gap between the political promises in Washington to help veterans and retired service members. In 2009, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki launched the Zero Homelessness Initiative setting a target date of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. The Department of Housing and Urban Development last year estimated that the country still had nearly 58,000 homeless veterans, not including “at-risk” veterans whom the Call Center was supposed to serve.

Mrs. Obama in June gave a high-profile speech in which she declared that the mere existence of homeless veterans was “a stain on our nation’s soul” and “should horrify us.” The administration contends that U.S. veteran homelessness levels have declined 33 percent since 2010, and Mrs. Obama announced an alliance with some 75 city mayors and local officials to pool resources to aid homeless veterans.

“So it’s truly our duty to right this wrong and put an end to veteran homelessness once and for all,” she said.

Sharp criticism

But the VA’s efforts in serving homeless veterans were sharply criticized in the report.

Investigators found that call center counselors often did not log in or did not spend the entire day logged into the call center telephone system. Instead, calls were forwarded to the answering machine.

Counselors who worked the night shift were not logged into the telephone system an average of four hours each night, during which time the night shift had over 900 calls forwarded to the answering machine, according to the report. In addition, homeless veterans who were referred for services did not always receive needed care because the call center did not follow up with medical facilities.

In fact, the call center closed 47 percent of referrals when the VA medical facilities had not provided the homeless veterans with any support services.

In their report, auditors described a case in June 2013 in which a female veteran contacted the call center and told a counselor that she would become homeless that day when the trailer where had been living was no longer available. The counselor referred the call to a VA facility to develop an action plan to help the woman, but a VA official attempted to contact the woman only once, leaving a phone message that was never returned.

According to the homeless program liaison, VA medical facilities should attempt to contact veterans at least three times before closing referrals.

However, VA officials requested that the call center close the woman’s case and the call center complied.

Investigators also found that call center counselors were spending a significant amount of time assisting the Veterans Crisis Line, detracting from their availability to veterans calling the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans.

“Although it would be understandable for Call Center counselors to occasionally provide back-up support for the Veterans Crisis Help Line due to the emergent nature of Veterans Crisis Help Line’s calls, Call Center officials routinely had Call Center counselors work in the Veterans Crisis Help Line,” auditors wrote. “Our analysis showed that Call Center counselors spent just slightly less time supporting the Veterans Crisis Help Line, just over 9,900 hours or 8 percent of their time, compared with just under 12,000 hours or 9 percent of their time answering calls in the Call Center during FY 2013.”

Auditors estimated that $267,000 was inappropriately paid to counselors who regularly supported the Veterans Crisis Line instead of the call center because the salaries come from funds Congress specifically earmarked for the call center.

The call center director told auditors that the answering machine was put into use in April 2012 to handle an increased number of calls, but she did not believe a significant number would be forwarded to the machine and said additional staff would decrease the need for messages.

But even after 20 more counselors were hired in November 2012, the number of forwarded calls did not decrease.

The inspector general made seven recommendations to the VA undersecretary for health, including ending the use of an answering machine and improving the call center’s accessibility before hiring additional staff.

A VA spokesperson told The Washington Times that the agency continues to make ending veterans’ homelessness a top priority and will implement the recommendations from the inspector general.

“But as long as one Veteran remains homeless, that’s one too many. There is more work to do, and we appreciate the work of the Office of Inspector General and its audit of the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans,” the spokesman said in an email.

The VA will begin the use of a daily operational dashboard to assess performance of the call center to better address referrals for veterans who call in.

“As VA undergoes a major transformation to better serve Veterans through the MyVA initiative, we will be looking at how call centers like the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans and others can be organized to make it easier for Veterans to take advantage of the services and benefits that Veterans have earned and deserve,” the spokesman said.

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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