reporters: Lauren Gilger, Shawn Martin
The ABC15 Investigators found the majority of veterans calling the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) national hotline are not getting the help they need. Most callers are either getting hung up on or getting a busy signal.
Recently obtained VA documents show that in 2014, 55 percent of calls never got through to a representative. And, so far in 2015, that number is even higher, at 59 percent.
“It's ridiculous,” said Tom Boyle, a three-year veteran of the Navy. He was discharged after being injured in the line of duty.
“I was proud to be a sailor,” said Tom. “A lot of work, a lot of dedication, I just loved it.”
Tom told us he felt marginalized by the VA. He said he has called the hotline over and over again, but, most of the time, can’t get through.
“You wait like 45 minutes to an hour,” said Tom. “I got frustrated and hung up because I can’t get through.”
We found, most veterans or their families calling the hotline for help with their benefits can’t either.
Last November, we interviewed two former call center employees who told us they were fired along with several others because they didn’t meet VA guidelines that require employees to spend less than 10 minutes on the phone with each caller.
“I was mad. I was frustrated and I felt that I was being let down and that I had to go, again, through the whole process of doing what every other veteran does, is call the call center and wait and wait and wait,” said Tom.
He said that it is just not right for a veteran to be disconnected like that.
Tom’s connection to the call center goes deeper than most vets. His wife, Arlene, worked at the call center in Phoenix for five years. There are seven call centers around the country.
She recently took early retirement because she was fed up with how she was asked to treat our country’s vets.
“It's not the veteran's fault. They can't keep enough people staffed in the call centers to answer those phones,” said Arlene.
The VA reported that there are a total of 736 employees of the call centers nationwide, but the department could not provide ABC15 with an exact number of employees charged with answering calls on a daily basis.
The department estimated their management consists of about 10 percent of employees on staff. The VA told ABC15 their attrition rate is 3 percent.
In a statement, a VA representative told ABC15, “Although the number of “blocked” calls – an industry term describing calls that are not connected to a Call Center employee due to a full call queue – is high, demand for information from the National Call Center continues to climb.”
But, according to the VA’s own data, the number of people trying to contact the call center was actually lower in 2014 than in the previous three years.
During that time, the VA told us the department increased staff at all seven call centers nationwide by 30 percent. The number of blocked calls was also slightly lower in that time.
“The bottom line is,” said Arlene, “The government is responsible to have enough people there.”
We asked the Veteran’s Benefits Administration for an on-camera interview, but they declined. They did respond to our requests for information via e-mail.
Click: Department of Veterans Affairs response: (admits most calls are deliberately blocked)
The department told ABC15 they have made significant advancements in how veterans can ask questions since 2009. They created the eBenefits platform and created live-chat capabilities on-line.
Arizona Senator John McCain sent ABC15 the following statement in response to our investigation:
"If true, these allegations further add to the VA’s disappointing history of denying timely and quality care to veterans. While significant steps have been taken to fix our broken VA health care system, including passage of historic bipartisan reform legislation last year, clearly the VA still has a long way to go to earn back the trust of our service members.
Our veterans deserve to have a department dedicated to helping them in every way possible, and I remain committed to making sure that the VA fulfills its promise to care for all of those who have served.”