CONGRESSWOMAN ELISE STEFANIK
On Monday, September 26, 2016, the House will consider H.R. 5392, the No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act, under suspension of the rules. H.R. 5392 was introduced on June 7, 2016, by Rep. David Young (R-IA) and was referred to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which ordered the bill reported on September 21, 2016, by voice vote.
H.R. 5392 would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to issue a quality assurance document for the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) and require VA to develop a plan to ensure that each telephone call, text message, and other communications received by the VCL (including at backup call centers) is answered in a timely manner by a person, consistent with the guidance established by the American Association of Suicidology.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) established the Veterans Crisis Line in July 2007 to provide support to veterans in emotional crisis. Between fiscal years 2008, its first full year of operation, and 2015, the number of calls received by the Veterans Crisis Line increased almost 700 percent, exceeding VA’s expectations. As VA began to address increasing numbers of requests for assistance, reports of dissatisfaction with Veterans Crisis Line’s service periodically appeared in the media.
In a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, GAO found that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) did not meet its call response time goals for the VCL, although extended call wait times were not common. VA’s goal is to answer 90 percent of VCL calls at the VCL primary center within 30 seconds. Currently, calls not answered within 30 seconds route to VCL backup call centers; however, for 5 months of fiscal year 2015, calls were routed to VCL backup call centers after 60 seconds. VA officials told GAO that VA data show about 65 to 75 percent of VCL calls were answered at the VCL primary center in fiscal year 2015 within either 30 or 60 seconds. GAO’s covert testing in July and August 2015 confirms VA’s data. Specifically, 119 covert test calls show that an estimated 73 percent of calls made during this period were answered within 30 seconds. GAO also estimates that 99 percent of all VCL calls during this period were answered within 120 seconds.
GAO also covertly tested the VCL’s text messaging services and found that 4 of 14 GAO test text messages did not receive responses. VA officials said they do not monitor or test the timeliness and performance of the VCL text message system and instead rely solely on the VCL’s text messaging provider for these functions. VA officials told GAO that the provider had not reported any issues with the system, but the provider told GAO that routine testing of the VCL system is not conducted. Without routinely testing its text messaging system or ensuring that its provider does so, VA cannot identify limitations to this service.
GAO recommends that VA regularly test VCL’s text messaging system and document targets and time frames for key performance indicators. GAO also recommends that VA and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services hotline collect information on how often and why callers reach Lifeline when intending to reach the VCL, review this information, and, if necessary, develop plans to address the causes. VA and the Department of Health and Human Services concurred with GAO’s recommendations and described planned actions to address them.
According to the bill sponsor, “[the bill] requires the VA to provide and implement a plan to improve responsiveness and performance of the crisis line, an important step to ensure our veterans have mental health resources they need. The legislation requires the VA to develop and implement a quality assurance process to address responsiveness and performance of the Veterans Crisis Line and backup call centers, and a timeline of when objectives will be reached. It also directs the VA to create a plan to ensure any communication to the Veterans Crisis Line or backup call center is answered in a timely manner by a live person and document the improvements they make.”
 See Veterans Crisis Line website, About the Veterans Crisis Line
 See GAO Report, “Veterans Crisis Line: Additional Testing, Monitoring, and Information Needed to Ensure Better Quality Service,” May 2016.
 See Rep. David Young Press Release, “When a Veteran is in Crisis America Must Be There to Help,” June 10, 2016.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates implementing H.R. 5392 would have insignificant costs over the 2017-2021 period, and would not increase net direct spending or on-budget deficits in any of the four consecutive 10-year periods beginning in 2027.
For questions or further information please contact John Huston with the House Republican Policy Committee by email or at 6-5539.