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EDITORIAL: VA troubles

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ system-wide culture of indifference, neglect and malfeasance has not only repeatedly dishonored our veterans, but it continues to cost some their lives.

The latest example?

According to David Shulkin, the VA’s undersecretary for health, the agency’s suicide prevention hotline dispatched an average of 30 emergency responders a day last year, and made 80,000 referrals to suicide prevention coordinators. Despite those efforts, however, roughly 20 veterans still commit suicide every day, a number that is undoubtedly impacted by the fact that more than one-third of calls from troubled veterans to the hotline are going unanswered.

In an internal email written before he left his post in June, Greg Hughes, then-director of the VA’s Veterans Crisis Hotline, blamed poor work habits and other problems at the VA for the unanswered calls. Mr. Hughes wrote that, despite a sharp uptick in crisis calls in recent years, some hotline workers handle fewer than five calls per day and routinely request to leave work before their shifts end. He accused some crisis line staffers of spending “very little time on the phone or engaged in assigned productive activity.” Mr. Hughes says this lack of call-center coverage resulted in an average of 35 to 40 percent of crisis calls received in May being rolled over to backup centers — centers where workers have less training to deal with problems faced by veterans.

Mr. Hughes’ email echoes a report from February detailing how, at numerous VA health-care facilities across the nation, including the VA Medical Center here in North Las Vegas, one in six veterans who called the line was told (via recorded message) to hang up and call one of the backup centers. Calls went to voice mail at some backup centers, including at least one center where staffers apparently were unaware there was even a voice mail system, the report said.

Mr. Shulkin says the VA “will not rest as long as there are veterans who remain at risk,” and laments the fact that the vast majority of the veterans who’ve committed suicide were not connected to VA care in the last year of their lives. Given the agency’s incompetence, that gap in care is sadly not a surprise.

In recent years, the VA scandals involving waiting times have received plenty of attention.

President Obama has already signed a bipartisan bill intended to “reform” the agency, and the House is expected to vote Monday on another bill requiring the VA to ensure that all communications received by the crisis line are answered in a timely manner by an appropriately qualified person. That’s fine, as far as it goes.

In the long run, however, this is a department that needs to be privatized.

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