A Department of Veterans Affairs hotline established to help homeless veterans missed thousands ofopportunities to help at-risk vets last year,
The VA’s National Call Center for Homeless Veterans, launched in mid-2012, didn’t consistently ensure that veterans who called the hotline received access to support services, according to findings released Wednesday.
“This is a huge national problem, our veterans deserve to have the phone answered when they call for help,” Rep. Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.), a member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in an interviewThursday.
Ms. Walorski said this isn’t a one-off issue at the VA, but shows the depth of problems that face VA Secretary Robert McDonald , who has been at the helm since the end of July. “I think it’s symptomatic and we have a long way to go,” Ms. Walorski said.
Of the nearly 80,000 calls made to the hotline in fiscal-year 2013, more than 21,000 went to an answering machine because counselors weren’t available, and 13,000 calls weren’t returned because messages were inaudible or callers didn’t leave contact information, the inspector general said. And none of the more than 50,000 referrals made by the call center were monitored or followed up for quality control.
“Everyone is pretty disappointed in the execution of the call center,” said Baylee Crone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “The use of the voice-mail system should never have happened. ”
The inspector general found counselors “often did not log in or did not spend the entire day logged into the call center telephone system,” and records were inadequate so inspectors couldn't account for time not spent taking calls. Staffing at peak periods was inadequate, and many calls went to an answering machine rather than being handled by a counselor.
“In our opinion, the majority of these calls could have been answered by counselors, instead of the answering machine,” the report said. An inspector-general spokeswoman said the center had 60 workers at the time of the audit.
The VA concurred with the report’s findings and agreed to eliminate the use of answering machines, develop new training for counselors, and establish a system to measure employee performance—all things targeted for completion in early 2015. The VA is also in the middle of an overhaul known as the MyVA program, which includes streamlining the agency and improving customer service.
“As VA undergoes a major transformation to better serve Veterans thorough 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 VA said.
“Their plan is pretty ambitious,” said a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, who said the most pressing concern—that veterans are pushed into voice-mail queues—hasn't necessarily been addressed. “We’re not sure that if we called today that we wouldn’t get sent to an answering machine,” she said. The inspectors will check back with the VA in three months to check on progress of fixes.
In 2009, then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. The number of homeless vets fell by 33% since 2010 to just under 50,000 in January 2014, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Mr. Shinseki resigned in April, amid a scandal after whistleblowers exposed systemic problems at the department.including employees who routinely misreported patient wait times to make it seem as if benchmarks were being met. Long patient wait times didn’t directly cause patient deaths, but did contribute to them, according to inspectors.
Congress passed a more-than $16 billion emergency funding bill to help VA fill staffing gaps and speed treatment to vets who had been waiting for appointments.
In July, Mr. McDonald, former CEO of Procter & Gamble Co. was named new secretary and immediately embarked on a nationwide tour of VA facilities and kicked off an effort to revamp the VA.