NO VETERANS CRISIS LINE CALL SHOULD GO UNANSWERED ACT; Congressional Record Vol. 162, No. 145
(House of Representatives - September 26, 2016)

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         NO VETERANS CRISIS LINE CALL SHOULD GO UNANSWERED ACT

  Mr. MILLER of Florida. Mr. Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and 
pass the bill (H.R. 5392) to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs 
to improve the Veterans Crisis Line.
  The Clerk read the title of the bill.
  The text of the bill is as follows:

                                H.R. 5392

       Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of 
     the United States of America in Congress assembled,

     SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.

       This Act may be cited as the ``No Veterans Crisis Line Call 
     Should Go Unanswered Act''.

     SEC. 2. IMPROVEMENTS TO VETERANS CRISIS LINE.

       (a) Quality Assurance Document.--The Secretary of Veterans 
     Affairs shall develop a quality assurance document to use in 
     carrying out the Veterans Crisis Line. Such document shall--
       (1) outline clearly defined and measurable performance 
     indicators and objectives to improve the responsiveness and 
     performance of the Veterans Crisis Line, including at backup 
     call centers;
       (2) include quantifiable timeframes to meet designated 
     objectives to assist the Secretary in tracking the progress 
     of the Veterans Crisis Line and such backup call centers in 
     meeting the performance indicators and objectives specified 
     in paragraph (1); and
       (3) with respect to such timeframes and objectives, be 
     consistent with guidance issued by the Office of Management 
     and Budget.
       (b) Plan.--The Secretary shall develop a plan to ensure 
     that each telephone call, text message, and other 
     communications received by the Veterans Crisis Line, 
     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. Such plan shall 
     include guidelines to carry out periodic testing of the 
     Veterans Crisis Line, including such backup centers, during 
     each fiscal year to identify and correct any problems in a 
     timely manner.
       (c) Submission.--Not later than 180 days after the date of 
     the enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall submit to the 
     Committees on Veterans' Affairs of the House of 
     Representatives and the Senate a report containing the 
     document developed under subsection (a) and the plan 
     developed under subsection (b).
       (d) Veterans Crisis Line Defined.--In this section, the 
     term ``Veterans Crisis Line'' means the toll-free hotline for 
     veterans established under section 1720F(h) of title 38, 
     United States Code.

  The SPEAKER pro tempore. Pursuant to the rule, the gentleman from 
Florida (Mr. Miller) and the gentleman from California (Mr. Takano) 
each will control 20 minutes.
  The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Florida.


                             General Leave

  Mr. MILLER of Florida. Mr. Speaker, I ask unanimous consent that all 
Members may have 5 legislative days in which to revise and extend their 
remarks and to add extraneous material.
  The SPEAKER pro tempore. Is there objection to the request of the 
gentleman from Florida?
  There was no objection.
  Mr. MILLER of Florida. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may 
consume.
  Mr. Speaker, I rise today in support of H.R. 5392, the No Veterans 
Crisis Line Should Go Unanswered Act. The Department of Veterans 
Affairs established the Veterans Crisis Line to ensure that any veteran 
that was contemplating suicide would be able to call for help no matter 
the time and no matter the circumstance. Over time, VCL's mission has 
expanded to include veterans facing all manners of personal 
emergencies, and the Veterans Crisis Line services have expanded to 
include a chat service and a texting operation. Yet the crisis line 
purpose has remained the same: to provide a place where veterans facing 
crisis would be able to get the help that they need any time of day or 
night.
  However, earlier this year, the VA Inspector General found that some 
calls to the crisis line were routed to backup crisis centers and 
ultimately sent to voice mail and that other line callers did not 
receive the immediate assistance that they desperately needed.
  The IG also noted that VA failed to provide a directive or handbook 
detailing the guidance necessary for the proper Veterans Crisis Line 
processes and procedures, and it failed to provide adequate orientation 
and training to crisis line staff, it failed to monitor contracted 
backup call centers, and experienced a number of quality assurance 
gaps.
  Though VA has assured us that these issues have been addressed and 
will never happen again, the risk of leaving a veteran in the midst of 
a crisis alone and without help is unacceptable to any Member of this 
body.
  H.R. 5392 would require that VA develops a quality assurance document 
that includes clearly defined and measurable performance standards with 
appropriate timelines and benchmarks to improve responsiveness and 
outcomes for the crisis line mainline and contracted backup call 
centers. It would also require VA to develop a plan to ensure that each 
telephone call, each text message, or other communications received by 
the crisis line mainline or at a contracted backup call center is 
answered in a timely manner by an appropriate, qualified live person, 
consistent with the guidance established by the American Association of 
Suicidology.
  This bill is sponsored by my friend and colleague, Congressman David 
Young from Iowa. I want to thank him for his efforts and his leadership 
on sponsoring this very important and, to some, very simple fix to 
something that needs to be taken care of.
  Nothing could be more important than guaranteed timely access to the 
veterans' services and support that they need in an emergency 
situation.
  Mr. Speaker, I urge all of my colleagues to support this commonsense 
piece of legislation.
  I reserve the balance of my time.
  Mr. TAKANO. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.
  Mr. Speaker, I rise today regarding H.R. 5392, the No Veterans Crisis 
Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act.
  The Veterans Crisis Line actually provides three ways veterans can 
access help when they are in crisis. Veterans, servicemembers, and 
their loved ones can call the 1-800 number, send a text message, or 
chat online to receive free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 
days a week, 365 days a year, even if they are not registered with VA 
or enrolled in VA health care.
  The responders at the Veterans Crisis Line are especially trained and 
experienced in helping veterans of all ages and circumstances, from 
those coping with mental health issues that were never addressed to 
recent veterans dealing with relationships or the transition back to 
civilian life.
  Since its launch in 2007 through May 2016, the Veterans Crisis Line 
has answered over 2.3 million calls and initiated the dispatch of 
emergency services to callers in imminent crisis nearly 61,000 times.
  This bill requires improvements to the Veterans Crisis Line by having 
the

[[Page H5889]]

VA create quality assurance guidelines that will include clearly 
defined and measurable performance indicators and objectives to improve 
the responsiveness and performance of the Veterans Crisis Line.
  The bill also requires the VA to develop a plan to ensure that each 
telephone call, text message, and other communications received by the 
Veterans Crisis Line is answered in a timely manner by a person, 
consistent with the guidance established by the American Association of 
Suicidology.
  As Suicide Prevention Awareness Month comes to a close, Congress must 
take these necessary steps to improve the Veterans Crisis Line for all 
veterans who depend on it. I support this legislation, and I urge its 
passage.
  Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.
  Mr. MILLER of Florida. I am proud to introduce the sponsor of this 
important piece of legislation. The gentleman is from the Third 
District of Iowa, from the small town of Van Meter, Iowa, home to Bob 
``The Heater From Van Meter.''
  Mr. Speaker, I yield 3 minutes to the gentleman from Iowa (Mr. 
Young).
  Mr. YOUNG of Iowa. Mr. Speaker, earlier this year, I introduced the 
No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go Unanswered Act, H.R. 5392, a 
bipartisan piece of legislation, doing this after hearing from a 
constituent who called the Veterans Crisis Line for help but never was 
connected to a live person. Though I have spoken on the floor about 
this issue before, as well as others, I remain deeply concerned with 
the many struggles and challenges our veterans face as they transition 
from Active Duty to civilian life and beyond.
  These are brave women and men who have sacrificed much in service to 
their country. Now, our servicemembers have given up holidays, missed 
birthdays, weddings, and other important life events of their family 
members, communities, and friends. They have been mobilized or deployed 
to some of the most volatile regions of the world for months on end, 
and the list goes on. They are our friends, family, and neighbors, and 
they make significant sacrifices because they believe in this great 
Nation and strive to protect the freedoms we have guaranteed.
  Now, unfortunately, more and more veterans carry deep scars--
emotional war wounds--ones we cannot see. These men and women deserve 
our support. Now, our country has a responsibility to ensure our brave 
veterans not only have the benefits that they have earned, but have 
access to services and resources intended to help them through the 
storms of life.
  Mr. Speaker, it is hard for anyone to ask for help sometimes, and the 
sad fact is today and every day this week, 20 veterans will take their 
lives. So it is unacceptable for any veteran who is reaching out for 
help and a listening ear to be turned away unanswered, especially when 
help may mean the difference between life and death. That is why I 
introduced, with bipartisan support from my colleagues, legislation to 
make critical improvements to the Veterans Crisis Line.
  This bipartisan bill requires the VA to create and implement 
documented plans to improve responsiveness and performance of the 
crisis line--an important step to ensure our veterans have unimpeded 
access to the mental health resources that they need.
  Even the VA has acknowledged these problems, which were also 
documented in two separate investigations conducted by the VA Office of 
Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office. This bill 
drives accountability within the Veterans Crisis Line, ensuring any 
call or text or messages are answered, and ensuring the quality 
processes, including those guiding staff training, are addressed and 
provided to Congress.

                              {time}  1615

  Our men and women in uniform have answered our Nation's call, and we 
must work to do better and ensure their calls do not go unanswered.
  Mr. Speaker, I want to especially thank Chairman Miller and his staff 
for working so closely with me on this bill. It is a pleasure serving 
with him, and his leadership on these issues will be missed in his 
retirement.
  September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It is only 
fitting that we pass this bill today to help our veterans.
  I urge my colleagues to support this bill.
  Mr. TAKANO. Mr. Speaker, I yield 5 minutes to the gentleman from 
Minnesota (Mr. Walz), my colleague and friend, the highest ranking 
noncommissioned officer to serve in Congress.
  Mr. WALZ. Mr. Speaker, I thank the gentleman from California (Mr. 
Takano) for his unwavering work for the care of our veterans. And to 
the chairman, as has been noted so often, at a time when partisanship 
seems to win the day or be on the news, I can assure him that the care 
of our Nation's veterans knows no political boundaries, and the work 
that has been done should be noted.
  I also want to thank the gentleman from Iowa (Mr. Young) for bringing 
this bill forward. Like everything in life, there is a symmetry to 
things, and I think the story of how we got to this point might be well 
spoken or told. The gentleman represents the Third District of Iowa, 
the new one.
  Back in 2006, there was a young Army Reservist named Joshua Omvig, 
who grew up in a small community in Iowa, literally down the road from 
where they filmed ``Field of Dreams.'' He returned from Iraq a week 
before Thanksgiving in 2006 and joined his family at that most American 
of all holidays to be back together. That evening of Thanksgiving, 
Joshua took his own life in front of his mother.
  The crushing loss of a son, the crushing loss of a son of the Midwest 
was overwhelming. But the Omvigs did something that Americans do and 
something that this Nation always does. They turned their grief into 
action. They went to their Congressman at that time in the old Third 
District, Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Boswell, himself a decorated 
Vietnam veteran and helicopter pilot. They put together what then 
became the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act. This was back 
in 2007, when nobody was talking about 20 veterans a day and no one was 
talking about mental health and no one was talking much about 
transition. We were in the heart of the Iraq war. We were in 
Afghanistan. Our veterans were coming back, and, rightfully noted, we 
were unprepared for them.
  In this piece of legislation, there are a couple of sections in here 
that are very clear on what Mr. Young's legislation does--exactly what 
it should do and what this Congress should do--provide oversight and 
improve on legislation.
  Section 1720F said that the VA would establish 24-hour mental health 
care. In carrying out the comprehensive program, the Secretary shall 
provide for mental health care availability to veterans on a 24-hour 
basis. It would establish a hotline to carry this out, and the 
Secretary would provide a toll-free hotline for veterans to be staffed 
by appropriately trained mental health professionals.
  And for those who don't think that that was needed, since that time, 
2.5 million calls have been made to that hotline, 300,000 online chats, 
and 55,000 texts. When someone calls that line, they are at a breaking 
point. One of our warriors is at a point where they had nowhere else to 
turn.
  The intent of this Congress and this Nation--not Democrat, not 
Republican--was to provide them the resources and the trained personnel 
necessary. What was noted in a GAO report, what Mr. Young has noted, 
and what this committee has noted is that the VA was not fulfilling 
fully what they should have. If one veteran falls through the cracks, 
we have failed. I don't care if 2.5 million were picked up. If 2.5 
million plus one, and that last one was not picked up, we have failed.
  Mr. Young's piece of legislation is simple, eloquent, asks the VA to 
do what they are supposed to do, and then do what should expected: 
report back to Congress so that we can provide our oversight ability.
  I want to thank the chairman, the ranking member, and this committee 
for doing exactly what we are supposed to do. We are supposed to make 
sure that the VA fulfills the commitment that the United States and its 
citizens want to care for every single veteran that is out there. This 
was a smart piece of legislation. It was championed by the parents of a 
warrior who took his own life.

[[Page H5890]]

  And keep in mind, when this was championed, we did not even bury our 
veterans who took their own lives with military honors because it was 
still something we didn't talk about. It was believed that they weren't 
casualties of war. In the 10 years since that time, we have made 
strides, we have made progress, and we understand that the cost of war 
continues on.
  I want to thank Mr. Young for continuing the legacy that comes out of 
Iowa, the deep care for those that serve in our heartland, continuing 
the bipartisan legacy of the Third District of Iowa to improve on a 
really smart, needed piece of legislation.
  Mr. Speaker, I encourage my colleagues to support this, and I 
encourage this body to continue to find ways to solve problems, work 
together, and show that, when it comes to unity around our veterans, 
there is not an inch of daylight between the two sides of this body.
  Mr. MILLER of Florida. Mr. Speaker, I yield 2 minutes to the 
gentleman from the Second District of Maine (Mr. Poliquin). He is from 
the metropolis of Oakland, Maine.
  Mr. POLIQUIN. Mr. Speaker, I thank the chairman for recognizing that 
Oakland, Maine, is a central Maine metropolis, and I thank the chairman 
for quickly bringing this very important bipartisan bill to the floor. 
I want to salute the gentleman from Iowa (Mr. Young), the Congressman 
who has been in the lead with respect to this issue.
  Mr. Speaker, when I was a boy growing up in central Maine, our brave 
men and women in uniform who were returning from the battlefield in 
Vietnam were not treated well. I remember those days, and a lot of us 
also do. I believe our country, Mr. Speaker, has learned a lesson that 
that shall never happen again.
  Sadly, Mr. Speaker, today, 22 veterans commit suicide in our country 
every day, and the majority of those veterans have served in Vietnam. 
When one of our veterans, any veteran, is in trouble and they call the 
crisis hotline, we need to make sure that those phones are answered and 
the individuals on the other end, our heroes, are not hung up on, 
inadvertently or otherwise.
  We need to make sure we take care of our veterans. Mr. Speaker, in 
the State of Maine, we love our veterans. The character of our country 
is measured in great part by how we treat our veterans. I am thrilled 
to cosponsor this bill because it will help correct this issue.
  I would like to close, Mr. Speaker, with a quote from George 
Washington: ``The willingness with which our young people are likely to 
serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly 
proportional to how they perceive how the veterans of earlier wars were 
treated and appreciated by their nation.''
  Mr. Speaker, I thank Mr. Young for bringing this important 
legislation to the floor.

  I encourage everybody in this Chamber, Republicans and Democrats, to 
get behind this terrific bipartisan piece of legislation.
  Mr. TAKANO. Mr. Speaker, I yield 4 minutes to the gentlewoman from 
Hawaii (Ms. Gabbard), who is also a member of the Hawaiian National 
Guard and an Iraq war veteran.
  Ms. GABBARD. Mr. Speaker, not too long ago, I was woken up abruptly 
one morning by a text message from a friend of mine that I had both 
served and trained with in the Army. His message was alarming because 
it came after many months of struggle in his life: nightmares, 
posttraumatic stress, many late nights staying up self-medicating with 
alcohol, troubles with his family, and a constant desire coming from 
him that the only way he knew how to deal with the challenges that he 
had was to deploy again and again and again.
  Finally, he was home and he got to a point where he felt comfortable 
asking for help. He summoned up the courage one day--he was at his 
civilian job during the day--finally to call his local VA hotline, and 
he got a voice-mail.
  This strong, battle-worn, courageous infantryman broke down in tears 
and ran out of the office building where he worked. His frustration and 
disappointment and even heartbreak was palpable that, even as he had 
spent so many years of his life answering the call to duty again and 
again and again, sacrificing so much, at that one moment that he made 
that very difficult decision to finally ask for help, no one was there. 
No one answered the phone.
  He detailed this in a text message to me. I immediately called him 
and spent a couple of hours on the phone with him talking things 
through. I thanked him--he said: Sorry for bothering you about this--
but I thanked him for making that call and letting me know what 
happened to him, giving me the opportunity to not only see how I could 
help him as my friend, but to see how we collectively can take action 
to help all of our brothers and sisters, unfortunately, many of whom 
are going through challenges that are not so different from his.
  Just a few days ago, a veteran in my district called the Veterans 
Crisis Line for the first time. Her psychologist had encouraged her to 
place a test call to the crisis line so she could feel comfortable with 
how it worked, she could see how it worked, and she would feel 
comfortable making that phone call in the future if she got to a point 
where she needed it at a point of emergency. So she called that number 
with her psychologist and they waited on hold for 24 minutes. It took 
24 minutes before someone finally answered the phone.
  Now, I can tell you, when I call the airlines to change a reservation 
or when I call the bank to deal with an issue, I get frustrated when I 
get placed on hold for 5 minutes or 10 minutes. I feel like this is a 
waste of my time and I am going to hang up the phone.
  It is virtually impossible for most people to understand that, when 
someone has a bottle of prescription drugs in their hand or a gun or 
they are on the verge of taking their own life and they are sitting on 
hold for 24 minutes, what do we think the outcome will be? Sometimes we 
are seeing that the shortcomings and gaps of the VA and these help 
lines have been filled by phone call networks that have been slapped 
together by troops, whether they are soldiers or marines or airmen or 
sailors, who are looking out for their buddy, doing what they can to 
make sure that everyone has got each other's phone numbers so that, if 
you get to that point where you need help, you have got someone to call 
who is going to answer the phone, who is going to talk you down from 
the edge, helping to make sure that, after they have survived the 
rigors and horrors of war and combat, they have a chance to live in 
peace when they come home.
  With the average of 22 veterans who go through all of that and who do 
come home yet are still taking their lives every single day, we cannot 
afford to give up. We cannot afford 24 minutes on hold.
  The SPEAKER pro tempore. The time of the gentlewoman has expired.
  Mr. TAKANO. Mr. Speaker, I yield the gentlewoman from Hawaii an 
additional 30 seconds.
  Ms. GABBARD. This is why I strongly support and have cosponsored this 
critical piece of legislation, and I commend my colleague from Iowa for 
introducing it, H.R. 5392, the No Veterans Crisis Line Call Should Go 
Unanswered Act. This bill establishes quality standards and metrics to 
make sure that every call to the Veterans Crisis Line is answered 
quickly and by a live trained person.
  I urge all of my colleagues to join me in passing this legislation 
today because the lives of our veterans depend on it.
  Mr. MILLER of Florida. Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.
  Mr. TAKANO. Mr. Speaker, I ask all of my colleagues to vote in favor 
of this legislation. I thank my colleagues who came to the floor to 
speak in support of H.R. 5392.
  I yield back the balance of my time.
  Mr. MILLER of Florida. Mr. Speaker, I, too, urge all of my colleagues 
on my side of the aisle to please join me in supporting this particular 
piece of legislation.
  I yield back the balance of my time.
  The SPEAKER pro tempore. The question is on the motion offered by the 
gentleman from Florida (Mr. Miller) that the House suspend the rules 
and pass the bill, H.R. 5392.
  The question was taken.
  The SPEAKER pro tempore. In the opinion of the Chair, two-thirds 
being in the affirmative, the ayes have it.
  Mr. YOUNG of Iowa. Mr. Speaker, on that I demand the yeas and nays.
  The yeas and nays were ordered.

[[Page H5891]]

  The SPEAKER pro tempore. Pursuant to clause 8 of rule XX, further 
proceedings on this motion will be postponed.

                          ____________________