SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — A Department of Veterans Affairs facility sits unassuming, behind a hotel in a small, riverside town on the eastern panhandle of West Virginia. The single-story brick building is nondescript except for a sign indicating the doors for VA deliveries.
Inside, visitors are passed a badge through a slot in a window before entering through a second set of doors. One main room, separated from smaller offices by a large glass wall, houses a few dozen cubicles, each with just enough space for a phone and desktop computer.
When Veterans pick up the phone to dial the new White House Veterans hotline, this is where their calls go.
President Donald Trump vowed two years ago to create a White House hotline for Veterans, promising them attention and action from the highest levels of government. He portrayed the hotline as a direct connection to the Oval Office and even indicated he might field a few calls.
A hotline was established, but its connection to the White House is in name only. The operation is located in Shepherdstown, W.Va., about 70 miles northwest of Washington, and phones are answered by VA employees – not White House staff.
Some Veterans have misperceived the hotline as a powerful link to the president’s official residence. And the government hasn’t done much to correct them.
Since it became fully operational in November, the VA has released few details about the hotline, its budget or how it differentiates from numerous other VA call lines. Requests for interviews about it have been ignored or shunted since April.
“This isn’t going straight to the White House, and I don’t think Veterans know that, or have a good understanding what this hotline is supposed to be,” said Licia Lynn, a Marine Veteran who’s called the hotline multiple times. “It’s rough, because some people don’t know how to advocate for themselves and were hoping the White House would advocate for them.”
On the campaign trail July 26, 2016, Trump spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Charlotte, N.C., and declared he would create a private, 24-hour White House hotline that Veterans could use to relay their complaints about the VA. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Trump described the VA as the most corrupt federal agency and vowed that his administration would fix it. The hotline was No. 6 in his 10-point plan.
“I will create a private White House hotline – that is answered by a real person 24 hours a day – to make sure that no valid complaint about the VA ever falls through the cracks,” Trump said. “I will instruct my staff that if a valid complaint is not acted upon, then the issue be brought directly to me, and I will pick up the phone and fix it myself, if need be.”
He joked that the hotline could keep him up at night and “take the place of Twitter.”
“I want to have somebody, a real person and a really competent person, in the White House with that hotline going,” Trump said.
This week marks the two-year anniversary of that pledge, and Trump addressed the VFW convention again – this time touting the hotline as a promise kept.
“As promised, we established the White House VA Hotline,” he told a crowd of about 4,000 Veterans.
Trump’s administration, under former VA Secretary David Shulkin, did establish a hotline. After months of delays and a soft launch in June 2017, the VA declared it fully operational in November. It can be reached at 855-948-2311.
But there are many unknowns.
While the VA has released some basic statistics, such has how many calls the hotline has received and how long it takes to answer the phones, the agency has refused to disclose the total cost of the operation, or say how successful it is in resolving Veterans’ problems.
Some Veterans who have used it complained it’s doing the opposite of what was promised and sending their calls back to local VA offices, rather than elevating their concerns to the highest reaches of government.
Veterans aren’t the only ones with questions and misperceptions about the hotline. Lawmakers who are tasked with VA oversight, as well as the VA inspector general, aren’t receiving answers.
When contacted by phone, VA Inspector General Michael Missal – who investigates VA programs and operations – said he was unaware about who ran the hotline and was uncertain whether he had oversight authority.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement his office has sought answers to questions about the hotline for months and received nothing in response.
“In fact, Veterans on my own staff have resorted to calling the hotline themselves just to learn more about the hotline and how it functions,” Walz said.
Rep. Phil Roe, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement that he looked forward to hearing more about the hotline and the concerns raised by callers.
“Part of truly reforming VA is to ensure Veterans have an outlet to share their experiences with the department – both good and bad,” Roe said.
A man at the local visitor’s center, taking a break from playing a bagpipe, said Shepherdstown has become a draw for weekend tourists from Washington and Baltimore. It’s a 90-minute drive from each city when the traffic is good.
The town is home to about 1,700 people year-round and boasts an active three-block thoroughfare with a smattering of funky shops, fusion restaurants and a well-trafficked diner. The biggest employer is Shepherd University, a liberal arts college that also takes up a large chunk of the town’s acreage.
There are a pair of minor attractions, both boasting views of the nearby Potomac River – a monument honoring the inventor of the steamboat, James Rumsey, and the Bavarian Inn, a hotel that promises fine European dining. Every summer about this time, residents look forward to a renowned theater festival that brings in visitors from across the mid-Atlantic.
On the south side of town, on the campus of the local Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, is the White House VA Hotline.
When contacted about the hotline, multiple officials who represent Shepherdstown in the state legislature didn’t know it was there.
“I didn’t know about it,” said Patricia Rucker, a Republican senator from Jefferson County, where Shepherdstown is located. “Obviously, I’m very glad and honored that they have chosen to open the center in Shepherdstown.”
The VA has stated in news releases that the hotline is based in West Virginia, but it won’t discuss why that was the chosen site.
Rucker cited the proximity to the Washington metro area as a possible reason the place was selected. She also guessed property is more affordable here than anywhere closer to D.C.
When a reporter showed up at the building in late June, about 70 cars were parked in the government-only lots surrounding the building. The program manager for the hotline, Randy Kunkleman, allowed entry but was eventually prohibited by VA headquarters from speaking on the record.
Tim Hudak, a communications official with the Veterans Experience Office in Washington, told Stars and Stripes that hotline staff couldn’t accommodate a tour at that time. He referred questions to VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour, who said he would arrange an interview and possible visit, but – after multiple inquiries – hasn’t. On Friday, Cashour offered a tour, but only after the Washington Post published its version of the story based on a tour.
‘It does no good’
When announced, the White House hotline was thought to give Veterans a direct line to the executive branch.
A half-dozen Veterans who have used the hotline and relayed their experiences to Stars and Stripes said they didn’t believe that was the case in their situations. They called the hotline for a variety of reasons, from policy questions to complaints about VA programs and help setting up medical appointments.
Coast Guard Veteran Thomas Fant, 46, called the hotline with a criticism about the length of time it took to secure a medical appointment through the VA Choice program, which allows Veterans to go into the private sector for care.
A hotline agent sent Fant back to the private-sector provider whom he had already spoken to about the issue.
“You call there because you’ve exhausted all other options with your local VA, but what happens is, it just circles right back to the origin of the issue. It does no good,” Fant said.
The VA maintains one call line for benefits questions, 800-827-1000, one for health care questions, 877-222-8387, another for online account problems, 800-983-0937, and one for burial eligibility information, 800-535-1117.
The VA Inspector General’s Office has its own hotline to receive VA complaints, at 800-488-8244. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has a hotline, 800-872-9855, to document employee retaliation issues at the VA.
The White House hotline receives some calls that are transferred directly to the Veterans Crisis Line or the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans. Last month, 200 calls were sent to the crisis line, Cashour said.
The new hotline, rather than eliminating bureaucracy as Trump promised, merely added another layer of it, Fant argued.
“It really hasn’t served any real benefit or purpose that I know of,” he said.
Brian Lewis, a 38-year-old Veteran and attorney in Woodbury, Minn., had a similar experience. He recently called the White House hotline with a complaint about the Minneapolis VA. The hotline agent rerouted him back to a VA employee in Minneapolis, and his issue was never resolved, Lewis said.
“I am dismayed the president touted this system as an effective remedy, when it is merely a continuation of the failed VA patient advocacy system,” Lewis said in an email.
Licia Lynn, 32, is a social worker who has tried to use the hotline on behalf of Veterans she assists. One Veteran asked her to get him a new VA doctor. Others were attempting to check on backlogged claims.
Half of the time, the person who answered the phone routed Lynn to her elected officials’ offices. Other times, the calls went unanswered, she said.
“It just doesn’t seem like it’s really working, and that’s terrible to say,” Lynn said. “I want it to work. I want it to work for my fellow Veterans. I just haven’t had a good experience with it.”
The hotline is receiving some positive feedback, Cashour said. Since October, it’s received 560 calls from Veterans who were helped by the hotline and wanted to compliment the staff.
Army Veteran Allison Bockstanz, 39, described a good experience. Bockstanz called multiple times with complaints about the Ann Arbor and Washington medical centers. She recently called to check on the status of her disability rating.
Each time she’s called, someone immediately answered and followed up with an email, Bockstanz said.
“I think it’s working,” she said. “I feel like the line is making the VA accountable for their actions. Everybody thinks that everything is bad, but I can tell you it was a lot worse, at least for me, a year ago.”
How much does it cost?
When the hotline quietly launched last summer, Shulkin said it would cost about $200,000 to kick off. The VA hasn’t released updated cost estimates, but USASPENDING.gov, an official government source for data on federal awards, lists three contracts totaling $2.2 million awarded to AT&T Corp. for a “Veterans hotline” in September.
The contracts list the VA hospital in Martinsburg, West Va., as the location. Martinsburg is the parent duty station for the Shepherdstown facility.
Jim Greer, director of corporate communications for AT&T, said only that AT&T is involved with the hotline and “proud of the services we’ve provided.” He referred questions about their involvement to the VA. Cashour did not respond to a question about the contracts with AT&T.