TOPEKA — The Veterans Crisis Line, which has call centers in Canandaigua, N.Y., and Atlanta, is expanding with a third site in Topeka that is expected to open this fall.
The VA began filling 100 responder vacancies earlier this month. The center will be located on the Topeka VA hospital’s campus but is administratively separate. The crisis line operates within the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, VA press secretary Curt Cashour said.
In April, VA deputy undersecretary for health Steve Young said before the U.S. House on Veterans’ Affairs that more than 99 percent of calls received were answered by the Canandaigua and Atlanta centers, meaning less than 1 percent were rolled over to a backup call center.
Cashour said since April, call volume has increased by more than 1,000 calls per week, prompting the Topeka site’s creation. Part of that increase was caused by expanded features, including the “Press 7 option.” Callers to local VA medical centers can use the option to connect directly to the VCL. The option is being rolled out to outpatient clinics, which underscores the need for a third call center, Cashour said.
The crisis line, which was established in 2007, has received more than 530,000 calls this year. It takes 8 seconds on average for calls to be answered, with 1.3 percent of calls rolled over to a backup center and 4.7 percent of calls being abandoned, Cashour said.
Two Office of the Inspector General reports sharply have criticized the VCL’s management. In the most recent report, published in March, the OIG found problems with the crisis line’s governance and oversight. It identified deficiencies in training, managing incoming calls and a lack of data collection on serious outcomes such as attempted or completed suicides. And it determined that none of the recommendations made in the first report had been fully implemented.
The March report outlined 16 new recommendations.
“OIG recommendations are integrated into all VCL operations,” Cashour said, when asked how they would be applied to the Topeka center.
The agency is recruiting those with crisis line experience and those with a master’s degree in areas such as mental health, social work and psychology.
VA Eastern Kansas Health Care System spokesman Joseph Burks said the addition of the VCL “would not add to the challenges of our medical center recruiting, since we would not necessarily be competing from the same pool of applicants.”
The Topeka VA has faced a chronic staff shortage in various areas, including mental health.
The VA estimates 20 veterans commit suicide every day, significantly exceeding the national average for civilian adults.
Veterans in crisis can reach the Veterans Crisis Line at (800) 273-8255 and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat or text to 838255.