News Briefs

VA secretary says agency will cooperate with investigation into veterans crisis line

By: - November 15, 2023 1:59 pm

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, appears for a podcast recording in September 2022 at the Kansas Reflector office in Topeka (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector).

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough sought to defend the veterans crisis line Wednesday in a letter to the Kansas senator who has raised concerns with how some veterans are treated after calling it.

McDonough wrote in the three-page letter to Republican U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran that the VA “takes any allegations of insufficient care or service very seriously and will investigate thoroughly.”

“We also want to reaffirm our appreciation and support for whistleblowers at VA, who raise important issues and help us better serve our nation’s heroes,” McDonough wrote. “It takes courage to raise concerns, and we at VA are dedicated to building a culture where every employee feels empowered and unafraid to do so.”

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line provide 24/7 support for anyone thinking about committing suicide by dialing 988. The veterans crisis line is available by dialing 1-800-273-8255 and pressing 1 or by sending a text message to 838255. The Veterans Crisis Chat is available here

The Government Accountability Office has opened an investigation into the veterans crisis line after Moran, the top GOP senator on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, asked them to do so in response to multiple whistleblower allegations of “gross mismanagement.”

McDonough wrote in the letter that he wanted to share additional information with Moran about why staff members at the veterans crisis line transfer people to the “callers with complex needs” program. That process is at the center of Moran’s concerns.

“Callers with complex needs are known callers who display inappropriately abusive behavior (e.g. cursing at responders or being racist toward responders); sexual behavior; or high-frequency calling for a purpose other than crisis support (e.g. calling VCL hundreds of times per day),” McDonough wrote.

“Oftentimes, these callers are not veterans — or those calling on behalf of veterans — and can take up resources that would normally be used to serve veterans in immediate crisis,” McDonough added.

The complex needs program, he wrote, was established in the spring of 2018 and consists of more than 100 staff who receive 32 hours of training on “behavior-shaping, boundary-setting and coaching.”

“In the rare situation that we come close to capacity for (callers with complex needs) callers during any shift, we will add staff to that shift, using overtime and other tools,” McDonough wrote.

Sometimes people transferred to the callers with complex needs unit will receive a “selectively delayed response,” which McDonough wrote is a “best practice” that can help those people “modify their behavior by pausing their engagement with a responder.”

“While engaged in a delay, the caller hears a caring message about why they are waiting for a response, how to shape their behavior to be removed from a hold, and what to do if in crisis,” McDonough wrote. “Crucially, there is always an option for these callers to connect to support immediately if they are experiencing an urgent crisis, and these callers are neither placed on indefinite holds nor involuntarily disconnected.”

Those callers also have “extensive records” within the veterans crisis line, meaning that even if they are disconnected from the call for any reason, there is “no break in record retention.”

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.