Responder Howard Hill, who is a former Marine, listens to a caller at the VA’s crisis hotline call center in Atlanta, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Major effort to combat vet suicides launches in Atlanta

More than a decade of war, an aging Vietnam-era population and the VA’s own breakdowns contribute to a staggering statistic that points to a dire crisis for the nation’s veterans: Some 20 veterans kill themselves each day.

Atlanta is now playing a major role in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs revamped effort to end this crisis after a new call center for the National Veterans Crisis hotline opened in DeKalb County in October — one of two facilities of its kind in the country. Officials are scheduled to dedicate the new center Tuesday.

Mario Chiclana-Benitez speaks to trainees at the VA’s crisis hotline call center training room in Atlanta, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAl
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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.

But government auditors and other reports have criticized the hotline for significant failures, including delayed answer times, calls that roll 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.

The Atlanta call center is central to this plan, but the question remains: Can it put a dent in what has become a deadly epidemic affecting thousands of veterans and their families each year?

“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.”

The problem for the Eitutis and the VA is they haven’t been tracking the effectiveness and progress of the crisis line through the collection of reliable data. They can’t say how many lives they’ve saved or lost to suicide after veterans reached out for help. The crisis line’s website says it has answered more than 2.5 million calls and has dispatched emergency services to 66,000 callers in crisis since it opened the Canandaigua, NY, call center nine years ago.

But over time, a dramatic increase in call volume has stretched the hotline’s ability to keep up. 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.

In June, internal emails surfaced from a former director of the crisis line in which he said more than a third of the calls were rolling over to the backup call centers because of poor work habits by VA employees. First reported by USA Today, the emails by Greg Hughes, who resigned from directing the crisis line in June, said the center routinely had staff who left early or spent little time on the phone, and he suggested that half the hotline staff was under performing.

“If we continue to roll over calls because we have staff that are not making an honest effort, then we are failing in our mission,” Hughes wrote in a May 13 email.

Eitutis said he is searching for a new permanent director of the hotline and that person may be stationed in Atlanta.

“This is my number one priority,” Eitutis said. “It’s not something we’re going to take our eye off the ball.”

Matt Eitutis, acting executive director of member services for Veterans Affairs, poses for a portrait at the VA’s crisis hotline call center in Atlanta, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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 AJC. “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.”

Earlier problems plagued Atlanta office

The new facility is housed in the same DeKalb County office building near I-85 that houses the VA’s Health Eligibility Center, which oversees national health enrollment for millions of veterans across the country. Both now fall under the VHA’s member services office.

That center has had its share of problems. It was the focus of whistleblower complaints and an AJC investigation in 2014 that exposed hundreds of thousands of veterans who had their applications for health care stuck in limbo. The leadership overseeing the center at the time tried to mislead the public about the extent of the problem.

That whistleblower, Scott Davis, said he’s glad the agency is trying to address mental health issues of veterans, but he has concerns about how the public will independently assess the new call center’s effectiveness.

“The problem with member services management is they have a history of falsifying performance reports,” Davis said. “In this case it is critical because the services offered by (the crisis line) are literally a matter of life and death.”

Eitutis acknowledges the past problems that took place before he assumed control of the enrollment office in Atlanta.

He said the new hotline call center is already having an impact in reducing the number of calls rolling over. Earlier this month, the hotline for the first time reduced the rollover rate on certain days to below 10 percent, a dramatic drop from the 45 to 50 percent of the past. He said the goal is to reach 0 percent rollover rate by the end of the month.

‘You just talk to them’

VA has temporarily brought in staff to Atlanta from the call center in New York to help train the new workforce, which will eventually exceed 300 people. Carolina Roy, a veteran who served in Afghanistan and appeared in the documentary about the New York call center, is one of the responders who has been offering hands-on training.

Responder Carolina Roy works at her desk at the VA’s crisis hotline call center in Atlanta, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. BRANDEN CAMP / SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A responder can take 20 calls a shift. Some callers may have a gun or they’ve slit their wrists or taken medication in an attempt to end their lives. Some may just want someone to listen or they may need help getting looped into the VA system. In emergency cases, the hotline staff will dispatch local emergency responders to the person’s residence.

“It is a heavy day,” Roy said. “You get ready for a day. You prepare yourself for helping veterans. For a lot of us it’s something we love to do.”

New call responders such as Howard Hill are on the front line in Atlanta. Hill, a former Marine, is among the more than 80 staff already at work in the Atlanta call center. Hill, who has a masters in mental health, had been working with homeless veterans in Atlanta before getting hired by the call center in September.

After undergoing three weeks of classroom training and then several weeks of hands-on training with people like Roy, he started taking calls last month. He said having served in the Marines he isn’t alarmed when someone says they have a gun. He remains calm, listens and tries to connect with them over the phone.

“You just talk to them,” he said. “You ask them to put it away, take out the magazine.”

Hill, 49, said the work at the hotline makes him feel like his life has come full circle. When he was a young marine at age 19, his roommate ended his own life. At the time, he didn’t recognize the signs, but now with his training and education, he can help those who are struggling. The calls can be tense, some lasting hours, but the work never gets him down.

“I feel like I’m having a great impact,” he said. “When I leave here I feel like I’ve saved some lives. Everyday, I feel great when I leave here. This job has given me a chance to help veterans.”

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