WASHINGTON — Grilled by lawmakers, the Department of Veterans Affairs insisted Tuesday it was well on its way to fixing problems with its suicide hotline and largely brushed aside the worst criticisms in an internal watchdog report released two weeks ago.
A March 20 audit by the VA inspector general had found that nearly a third of calls to the Veterans Crisis Line as recently as November were bounced to backup centers run by an outside contractor, as well as other problems including weak leadership and inadequate data to measure the quality of calls. The rollover calls happen when phone lines are busy, leading to possible waits of 30 minutes or more.
It was an early test for new VA Secretary David Shulkin, who has made suicide prevention a signature issue at the troubled agency, riven with scandal in recent years since reports of delays in treatment at veterans’ hospitals.
Approximately 20 veterans take their lives each day. Testifying before a House panel, Steve Young, VA’s deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, pointed to a dramatic turnaround in calls answered by the hotline since November. He said it was now a ‘‘rare instance’’ that calls are bumped to a backup center and that calls are answered by live counselors within eight seconds, on average.
The crisis hotline ‘‘is the strongest it has been since its inception in 2007,’’ Young told the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
But pressed by lawmakers, the VA acknowledged it was still working to make other improvements it had promised to do by last September. It pledged to beef up quality control and hire a new permanent director as soon as possible.
‘‘Fulfilling the IG’s recommendations is a key step in raising the bar,’’ Young said.
Shulkin, who previously served as the VA’s top health official, has previously described the issue as resolved. ‘‘Fixing the Veterans Crisis Line was a critical step in keeping our commitment to veterans,’’ he said in a March 21 statement.
Lawmakers were unconvinced.
Minnesota Representative Tim Walz, the top Democrat on the House panel, pointed to ‘‘re-occurring issues we see time and time again at VA.’’ For more than a year, the crisis hotline has operated without a permanent director and has yet to issue a policy handbook.
‘‘I would be very careful in saying you fixed the problems,’’ Walz warned.