Director of VA crisis line resigns after continued poor performance

Gregory Hughes (center), with Health Resource Center, a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs organization, Topeka, Kansas was honored with the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) Patriot Award on 23JUN2015. (Photo credit) Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve)

Despite a post-scandal shakedown four months ago that shuffled leadership at the VA’s suicide hotline, the line’s director has resigned, with some staff members answering as few as a call per day.

Veterans Crisis Line Director Gregory Hughes -who was hired in January to fix the inaction issues that either placed callers on hold or sent them to voicemail- resigned from office on June 17th, according to Military Times.

Though Hughes claims his reason for resignation falls under “family obligations”, his resignation comes on the heels of a government watchdog agency reporting that the hotline service needs improvement, to include a text message response system that seems anything but functional.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released on Monday, 73% of calls made to the crisis line during a two-month span in 2015 were answered within the VA’s standard procedural time of 30 seconds, which ensures that the primary call center in New York answers and does not re-route to another backup center.

However, emails from Hughes to his staff in May of 2016 point to a worsening situation, as around half of the calls ended up being shifted over to the backup call center.

“If we continue to rollover calls because we have staff that are not making an honest effort, then we are failing at our mission,” Hughes wrote.

The GAO also found that 28% of the test messages texted to the center by GAO did not receive a response.  Of the remaining ten, eight received responses in two minutes, while the other two were answered in five minutes.

While the VA wants 90% of all calls to be answered in New York, half of the calls go to contracted backup centers. According to one VA employee, these centers neither follow procedure or have access to veteran’s info, such as medical records and contact information in the event of a crisis.

“If a veteran commits suicide after being routed to a backup center, we have no way of knowing or tracking it,” the employee said.

Hughes said to his staff that many calls were being routed to backup centers because some staff members would regularly leave before the end of their shift or refuse to go to the office building they are assigned to. Worse, some responders take as few as one to five calls a day.

“We have some truly outstanding staff here who are very committed to their positions. These staff are routinely handling 15 to 20 calls daily and the quality of their calls [is] excellent,” Hughes wrote. “We have other staff that are taking 1-5 calls a day and this cannot continue … what we have seen is that there are staff who spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity.”

One VA employee told Military Times that many members of the call center would stop taking calls within an hour of their shift to avoid being caught up and forced to work late.

Satisfied with the status quo, Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson traveled in February to the main call center in New York, expressing support for Crisis Line workers, whom he referred to as heroes.

“The simple fact of the matter is the operation at the Veterans Crisis Line today does not bear any resemblance to what happened then,” he said.

Through his email communiques, Hughes expressed his frustration at the inaction of his employees.

“Under our new leadership we are receiving significant additional resources of equipment, technology and personnel and we have an obligation to [our department] as well as veterans to make the most of these resources,” he wrote.

VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillon said changes and improvements are allowing the VA to track employee work loads better than previous leadership could, including when they were last inspected by the GAO.

“Deputy Secretary Gibson has repeatedly said that we will make the Veterans Crisis Line a gold standard facility and that the [line] has traditionally been undermanaged,” Dillon said. “Already, we have made important organizational changes to better support our lifesaving counselors. In their response to GAO, Veterans Health Administration officials said the VA is taking steps to resolve issues and is “making further improvements to the Veterans Crisis Line, ensuring veterans in crisis reach one of our trained responders in a timely manner.”

Even though Hughes resigned from his current position he is still an active VA employee.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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