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Explanation sought for problems with VA help lines

WASHINGTON—Key members of Congress from both major political parties are demanding that the Department of Veterans Affairs explain why its call centers routinely provide veterans with bad information.

In response to a Knight Ridder story in December, Democrats and Republicans from the House of Representatives and the Senate have asked the VA to account for the incorrect answers it gives people who call the department's help lines.

According to the VA's own "mystery caller" program, Knight Ridder revealed that people who call the agency for help and advice are more likely to receive completely wrong answers than completely right ones.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the House subcommittee that deals with veterans' benefits wrote to the VA, asking for evidence of what the VA has done to improve its public call centers. Rep. Jeff Miller, R- Fla., wants answers from the VA within four weeks.

In the Senate, the chairman of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has directed his staff to discuss the situation with the VA. The agency and the committee staff will meet next week.

Two Democrats on the Senate committee—Ken Salazar of Colorado and Barack Obama of Illinois—also wrote VA Secretary James Nicholson, requesting information on the call centers and efforts to fix them. In a letter this week, Salazar said he was disturbed by the "startling lack of accuracy and professionalism" by VA workers. Obama wrote on Jan. 11 that veterans "deserve better than being given bad information" by the VA—or "being treated with disrespect." He said that he was outraged at the "pattern of unacceptable behavior."

A spokesman for the VA, Jose Llamas, said the agency had just received the letters and would respond to the legislators when it was done reviewing the letters.

So-called mystery callers, saying they were relatives or friends of veterans inquiring about possible benefits, made a total of 1,089 calls. VA experts then rated the answers given by the VA's regional office workers.

They found that 22 percent of the answers that callers received were "completely incorrect," 23 percent were "minimally correct" and 20 percent were "partially correct." Nineteen percent of the answers were "completely correct," and 16 percent were "mostly correct."

The program also found that some VA workers were dismissive of some callers and unhelpful or rude to others.