TEXAS - UPDATE: Less than 24 hours after KVUE's story about issues with the Veteran Crisis Line aired, representatives from the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System said they resolved the problem with the "local phone tree" in the area.
Veterans should now be able to call the Veteran's Affairs medical center in Austin and press "7" to be automatically connected with the Veteran Crisis Line.
KVUE verified that the system is functioning in Austin, Temple and Waco.
ORIGINAL STORY: The Veterans Crisis Line recently observed its tenth year of existence. Originally named the National Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline, the Veteran Crisis Line began on July 25, 2007. Since then, Veteran Crisis Line responders have answered nearly 3 million calls and dispatched emergency services nearly 82,000 times.
But some people believe the line is too difficult to call for a person in the midst of a crisis.
The number seven is supposed to be the one number consistent within the Veteran's Affairs office. No matter which medical center you call, pressing "7" is supposed to take you to the Veteran Crisis Line.
The line is designed to save veterans on the verge of suicide.
But an Austin veteran found the option didn’t exist locally.
“There’s no option to press seven,” said Marco Martinez.
The KVUE Defenders first met Martinez last year. The U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs spent two years delaying medical necessities for his home.
KVUE's story prompted a promise from VA to help.
While Martinez is approaching three years without his equipment, life still hasn't gotten easier.
“Memorial Day was hard for me this year. It might be beer and barbecue for a lot of people, but for me and a lot of veterans, it's remembering people that we've lost,” Martinez said.
Martinez called the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic, looking for a transfer to the Veterans Crisis Line.
“Welcome to the Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System,” the automatic answer initially said. “If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or another, hang up and dial 1-800-273-8255.”
Martinez thinks those instructions are a bit much for someone in crisis.
“If you're suicidal, you may not have a pen and paper handy,” Martinez said.
The VA agrees.
In May 2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs said that it was working on a function that "directly connects veterans who call their local VA medical center to VCL (Veterans Crisis Line) by pressing a single digit during the initial automated phone greeting." Read that report here.
It would be ready by September 2016, the VA said.
Three months later, VA executives said they were still "streamlining and standardizing how crisis calls from other locations ... reach the VCL …"
Then, in April of this year, The Office of Inspector General said the "Press 7" option is still in the works.
“It's all across the board,” Martinez said as he showed the KVUE Defenders his spreadsheet of calls.
Martinez called each VA facility in Texas.
He found only 11 of 55 facilities had the option to "Press 7." 44 facilities did not.
The KVUE Defenders called the VA.
Steve Holliday is the Chief of Mental Health for VA Texas.
“I appreciate you bringing it to my attention,” Holliday said.
Holliday said he made the calls, too.
“I agree with your veteran. It's certainly something we should pursue,” Holliday said.
The VA told its districts to give the "Press 7" command to all medical centers first, then wait for guidance for the rest.
“I know it's not a simple process to change the phone tree. They may want to phase it in to make sure it's done right and make sure that everything is operating before taking the next step. That's speculation on my part,” Holliday said.
Congress passed the "No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act" last year to fix problems with the Veterans Crisis Line.
A VA spokesperson told KVUE the "Press 7" option would be in place locally by October.
"We strongly urge veterans experiencing a crisis, as well as their family members, to contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1). This line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said a VA public affairs officer.
A veteran can also text any message to 838255.
Veterans Health Administration officials gave KVUE 32 pages of information on the Veterans Crisis Line. They do not want you to be discouraged to call.
If you have a story tip for the KVUE Defenders to investigate, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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