WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing renewed criticism over its inability to properly meet the needs of former service members – this time over the poor operation of a call center established to aid homeless vets.
A recent inspector general’s report revealed that homeless and at-risk veterans who contacted the call center, which costs $3 million a year to operate, often experienced problems either getting in touch with counselors or receiving the necessary referrals for services.
Of the estimated 79,500 homeless veterans who contacted the hotline in fiscal year 2013, the report determined that the only thing 27 percent of those contacting the hotline could do is leave a message on an answering machine because counselors were unavailable to take calls. About 16 percent of the callers could not receive a necessary referral to VA medical facilities because the calls left on the answering machine were either inaudible or failed to provide contact information. And 4 percent failed to receive a referral to VA medical facilities despite having provided all necessary information.
The department fell short in about 40,500 incidences, according to the report.
Lisa Pape, executive director for homeless programs at the Veterans Health Administration, told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee reviewing the homeless problem that she regrets “that any veteran calling for referrals did not get the service they requested.” The agency is implementing measures intended to address the problem, she said, adding that “management is looking at how to address issues in performance.”
The department already has rescheduled employee hours to ensure that phones are staffed at peak times. About 90 percent of incoming calls are now being directly answered. Those whose calls are answered mechanically are informed of where they stand in the queue and offered the option of remaining on the line or leaving a message.
The inspector general’s report said that in many instances it could not account for a significant amount of the time of the counselors who were supposed to be manning the call center, which counts 60 employees. Pape suggested they may have either been attending training sessions, on leave or filing paperwork in regard to earlier contacts.
Lawmakers attending the committee meeting chided the department for its failings.
“The OIG report is embarrassing to our nation’s brave men and women,” said Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.). “Almost 50,000 veterans experience homelessness on any given night and yet we can’t even help the ones who reach out for help. This is another example of the persistent lack of accountability at the VA and cannot continue.”
The call center, Walorski said, is “failing our nation’s finest.”
On the positive side, the department declared that the problem of veteran homelessness is declining — veteran homelessness has dropped 33 percent since 2009, although plenty of cases remain unresolved.
Precise counts are impossible to achieve because of the homeless population’s transient nature. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates 49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, about twice that number may experience homelessness.
Only 7 percent of the nation’s general population are service veterans but they account for almost 13 percent of the homeless.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans maintains that in addition to the usual reasons for homelessness – a nationwide shortage of affordable housing, the lack of income and access to healthcare – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans face additional challenges like the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, factors compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.
In addition, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.
A top priority for homeless veterans, according to the coalition, is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.
John Downing, CEO of Soldier On, a nonprofit organization working to eliminate veteran homelessness, told the committee that more needs to be done, particularly in the area of providing mental health services.
“Housing itself doesn’t do it,” he said. “We need to deliver services to the housing.”
Other witnesses agreed.
“Housing first at the exclusion of everything else is just nonsense,” said Phil Landis, president of Veterans Village of San Diego. “You can’t just have a place to live without providing extensive services to veterans. The operational funding is critical to maintain the stability of these men and women.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs has stumbled a number of times over the past year in regard to delivering services. A VA inspector general’s report, issued in May, uncovered evidence that 40 patients died while awaiting care at a Phoenix facility where employees kept a secret list of patients who faced prolonged delays in receiving necessary treatment. Those VA workers are thought to have concealed those wait times in an effort to enhance the facility’s performance.
The report further determined that 1,700 veterans seeking treatment in Phoenix were at risk of being “forgotten or lost.”
Subsequent probes discovered similar problems at other VA medical facilities that serve almost 9 million veterans. The revelations led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.