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Ex-VA Manager: 1/3 Of Suicide Hotline Calls Go Unanswered

Despite the fact that 22 U.S. veterans commit suicide daily -- about one every 65 minutes, according to a study -- more than one-third of calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs' suicide hotline go unanswered, the hotline's former director said.

Greg Hughes, who ran the VA's Veterans Crisis Line, said some hotline operators handle fewer than five calls a day, echoing an internal VA report that found calls to the suicide hotline are "routinely" allowed to go to voicemail, NBC News reported.

That's because of a corrupt work culture in which suicide line operators "spend very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity," Hughes said. He also stated that staffers have a habit of routinely leaving work early.

Compounding the problem is the fact that between 35 and 40 percent of calls are "rolled over" to backup centers, where they're handled by people who aren't as well trained to deal with suicidal veterans, according to The Associated Press.

The revelations came after Hughes left his job in June after several weeks of sending internal emails detailing the problems, the AP report said.

The allegations are just the latest problems facing the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2014, an independent investigation found that VA officials had been falsifying records to make it look like veterans were receiving timely medical care when in fact, veterans waited almost four months -- 115 days on average -- just to see a primary care physician, The Washington Post reported.

Lawmakers, veterans groups, and citizens were incensed after subsequent investigations found veterans had died while waiting unreasonably long periods of time for medical appointments with the VA. Investigators also learned that veterans were in many cases forced to wait a year or more for specialist appointments.

Officials at the VA in Phoenix, Arizona, falsified waiting list records to make it look like veterans were receiving care more quickly than they were, according to whistleblowers and follow-up reports, as well as the VA's Office of the Inspector General.

Likewise, clerks at a VA clinic in Fort Collins, Colorado, were taught how to falsify records to make it look like doctors were seeing an average of 14 patients a day, according to the VA's Office of Medical Inspector.

In South Carolina, investigators found 3,800 backlogged appointments, concluded that 52 cancer diagnoses were related to delays in treatment, and said six veteran deaths at that facility were due to delays in care.

And in Pittsburgh, at least six veterans died of a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that officials knew about for a year prior, The Washington Post reported. Later, the Post said, top VA officials lied to congress, attributing the outbreak to faulty equipment instead of admitting it was caused by human error.

In many cases, VA supervisors manipulated records so they'd receive performance bonuses. A 2015 USA Today report found that VA executives, managers and employees received $152 million in performance-related bonuses despite the ongoing scandal and services that fell well short of expectations for VA medical care.

Despite the revelations about poor service by VA suicide hotline operators, VA Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin issued a statement crediting his agency for doing right by veterans.

"We are saving thousands of lives," Shulkin wrote, says the AP. "But we will not rest as long as there are veterans who remain at risk."

Sources: NBC News, The Associated Press, The Washington Post, USA Today / Photo credit: The U.S. Army/Flickr

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