- Associated Press - Sunday, December 25, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia is now playing a major role in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs efforts to prevent suicides among military veterans.

A new call center for the National Veterans Crisis hotline recently opened in DeKalb County, outside Atlanta.

It’s one of two facilities of its kind in the nation, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported (https://bit.ly/2h3V2lL).

The new facility is in the same DeKalb County office building near Interstate 85 that houses the VA’s Health Eligibility Center, which oversees national health enrollment for millions of veterans across the country.

More than a decade of war, an aging Vietnam-era population and the VA’s own breakdowns contribute to a dire crisis for the nation’s veterans: About 20 veterans kill themselves each day, the Atlanta newspaper reported. The Atlanta call center is a key part of the VA’s revamped effort to end this crisis.

The first facility in upstate New York was the subject of a documentary film “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1” that won an Oscar in 2015 after it chronicled efforts of responders to talk veterans back from edge of despair and get them help.

However, government auditors and other reports have criticized the hotline for significant failures, including delayed answer times, calls that roll over to voice mail and lax employee performance.

Last month, President Obama signed a new law to bring more oversight to the hotline and improve response times for veterans in crisis.

“We’re convinced that what we’re doing at the (crisis line) is going to make a difference,” said Matt Eitutis, the Veterans Health Administration Acting Executive Director for Member Services, whose duties include overseeing the crisis line’s performance. “We are saving and changing lives.”

Over time, a dramatic increase in call volume has stretched the hotline’s ability to keep up, the Atlanta newspaper reported. Last year, the hotline received more than 500,000 calls compared to about 10,000 calls its first year. And the demand forced the VA to rely on backup call centers run by private contractors to handle the overflow.

Those private call centers too often haven’t done the job.

A VA inspector general’s report in February found callers sometimes went to voice mail or experienced delays. Some callers had to wait so long they hung up. Private facilities also lacked enough trained staff that could dispatch and coordinate the emergency services that are sometimes necessary to save veterans from harming themselves, the report found.

U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-GA, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee, co-wrote a letter in October with other senators expressing concern about the “epidemic level” of veteran suicides. In a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, he called the failures of the crisis line “unacceptable and disingenuous” to veterans, especially by putting them on hold or sending them to an answering machine after they called in need of immediate help.

“The opening of this new center should go a long way to see that doesn’t happen,” Isakson told the Journal-Constitution. “If it doesn’t, we’re going to keep funding it until it does. No call by a veteran in crisis should ever go unanswered, period.”

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Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, https://www.ajc.com


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