VA must correct problems with hotline

Depression among military veterans too often leads to them committing suicide, in numbers some view as a crisis. Apparently the Department of Veterans Affairs does not consider dealing with it a priority.

A few weeks ago, the VA inspector general released a report highly critical of the agency’s Veterans Crisis Line, sometimes referred to as a “suicide hotline.” Among the inspector general’s concerns was that, as recently as November, nearly a third of calls to the service were “bounced” from VA counselors to private-sector backup centers.

Veterans calling the hotline for help sometimes had to wait 30 minutes or more to talk to someone, the inspector general reported.

VA officials defended the program during recent testimony at a congressional hearing. By March, the percentage of calls transferred to backup centers had decreased to 0.1, down dramatically from the November rate, agency officials said.

Indeed, that is an improvement — if it lasts.

But as so often is the case with disturbing VA performance reports, one wonders whether it will.

One unsettling revelation during the congressional hearing was that the VA, having promised to hire a new permanent director for the crisis line, has delayed doing so for more than a year. That certainly does not indicate any sense of urgency among the agency’s top brass.

Let us hope that changes quickly. New VA Secretary David Shulkin has been in office for just a few weeks. No doubt any number of priorities for action are crowding his desk.

But about 20 veterans take their own lives every day. Helping talk them out of that ought to be among the VA’s very highest priorities. Shulkin should find a new crisis line director immediately — preferably from outside the agency — and make it clear to that person that business as usual at the VA is unacceptable to the secretary and the American people.

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