Thousands of veterans’ calls for help go to voicemail

As the winter months approach, homeless veterans seek help from shelters, veterans organizations and the Veterans Affairs Department, to keep off the streets and out of the cold.

But last year, thousands of homeless and at-risk veterans who tried to contact the Veterans Health Administration’s National Call Center got only an answering machine.

Nearly 80,000 veterans contacted the call center in fiscal year 2013, according to a VA inspector general report.

More than 21,000 of those veterans who contacted the call center were only able to leave voicemails. About 3,300 veterans provided all necessary information in their voicemails but still weren’t referred to a VA medical facility.

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The IG identified a total of 40,500 missed opportunities for the call center to refer veterans to appropriate care and services.

In one case, the call center referred a homeless male veteran and his wife, who were living in a tent, to a VA medical facility for assistance. But the counselor failed to confirm availability at a local shelter and follow up to see if the veteran received shelter. When the IG office reviewed the case a year later, it found “no documentation that the male veteran and his wife had received homeless services.”

Baylee Crone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said it’s important for veterans to be able to speak to a counselor when they call the center.

“Whether someone’s reaching out for medical care, because they’re suicidal, because they’re homeless, they shouldn’t go to a voicemail,” Crone said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

VA’s inspector general said the call center is the primary vehicle for veterans to communicate with homeless programs and services — everything from the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing Program (HUD-VASH) to VA’s Grant and Per Diem Program.

The OIG made a series of recommendations for the call center, including ending the use of answering machines and increasing counselor availability. It also recommended stronger management in collecting feedback on referrals.

Listen to Baylee Crone’s full interview on the Federal Drive.

Crone suggested the call center use a queue system to address the issue, in which veterans are put on hold but eventually able to talk to a live person.

“Someone might have to wait a couple of minutes before they talk to a counselor, but then they’re definitely going to be on the phone with a person before they hang up the phone. And that’s the real key,” Crone said.

VA established the 24/7 call center in March 2012 after then-Secretary Eric Shinseki announced the Zero Homelessness Initiative in 2009. The goal is to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

As of January 2013, Crone said about 49,000 veterans were homeless — a 33 percent decrease since 2009.

But, she said, ultimately, it’s not about the numbers.

“We don’t have a homeless veteran population. We have individual veterans who have very specific needs,” Crone said. “So what matters is not going out and counting heads. … It’s a matter of knowing each individual, knowing what their barriers are, knowing what makes them uncomfortable and the reason why they haven’t connected to care.”

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