Telephone bill charges to fund suicide hotline debates

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WASHINGTON — Skirmishes erupt at state houses across the United States over how to pay for a new suicide hotline.

The new 988 number is expected to launch in July after Federal Communications Commission approval in 2020. The three-digit code will replace the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 1-800-273-LIFE number, which routes calls to a network local advice centers. .

State officials are wondering whether to put new fees on consumers’ phone bills to pay 988 and expand mental health crisis services. Government data shows the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of Americans. In 2020, a record 2.39 million calls were made to the National Suicide Hotline.

The 988 number will work in July regardless of what happens with the charges offered by the state. Mental health advocates predict that the easy-to-remember 988 will lead to a further increase in calls, and they want to add new monthly charges to phone bills to pay for a better crisis response system.

“If there aren’t enough staff, people will keep calling for service. They’ll have longer queues, ”said Monica Kurz, vice president of the Kansas Suicide Prevention Headquarters, one of three groups responding to calls for rescue in the state. “I think people will hang up, and I think it will cost lives.”

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Telecommunications companies and the Conservatives back the 988, but say all charges should be kept low and limited to covering the cost of handling calls.

“The bill imposes a new tax on our wireless consumers,” said Margaret Morgan, lobbyist for T-Mobile US. Inc.,

during a public hearing in Montana last year over a proposed 10-cent telephone charge, estimated at $ 1.5 million per year for crisis intervention services in the State.

Ms Morgan said T-Mobile supported the 988 number but the legislation lacked details on the program and looked like a “blank check.” The bill was not passed.

The debate echoes that of telephone charges to finance the 911 emergency number.

In 2019, five states embezzled about $ 200 million in 911 fees or surcharges for “public safety programs unrelated to 911,” such as purchasing police cameras or funding wireless radio towers, according to one. FCC report. Some states have disputed the finding, but Congress in 2020 ordered the FCC to place new limits on how 911 charges are spent.

The Federal Communications Commission has ordered phone companies to direct all 988 calls to the suicide lifeline by July 16, 2022.


Photo:

Andrew Harnik / Associated press

Telephone charges or surcharges to fund 988 call centers have been adopted by at least four states: Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, and Washington. A 40-cent tax passed in Washington last year is expected to bring in about $ 46 million a year.

The launch of the 988 provided an “opportunity to redesign our crisis system to make it more responsive,” said Washington State Representative Tina Orwall, Democrat.

Ms Orwall said she expected the fee to help double the workforce of the 988 call centers, allowing them to offer more counseling and follow-up to patients. In some cases, mental health teams might be able to step in instead of police or paramedics, she said, if there is no medical or public safety emergency. .

At least seven other states have debated the fees. In Idaho, a Senate committee last year launched a monthly phone charge of $ 1 that would have generated $ 20 million per year to cover the costs of answering calls, as well as equipping crisis centers to respond. mental health emergencies.

Verizon Communications Inc.

objected, noting that Idaho has a budget surplus that it could use to pay for an expansion of mental health services, said Roy Eiguren, an Idaho lobbyist representing the company.

Verizon Communications objected to a monthly phone charge of $ 1 in Idaho that would have generated money to cover the costs of responding to crisis calls, among other things.


Photo:

ANDREW KELLY / REUTERS

The conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation called the proposed fee a “de facto tax increase for Idahoans.” Lawmakers have suspended fees and are now looking to dip into federal or state dollars to support 988, said State Representative Laurie Lickley, a Republican.

In California, state lawmakers debated last year but failed to pass a fee of up to 80 cents per phone line, which would have generated about $ 192 million a year.

Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and Kansas are other states that considered the fees last year but did not adopt them. New York lawmakers have commissioned a report on potential new sources of revenue to cover 988-related services.

The national lifeline for suicide prevention began in 2005. Calls are typically routed by area code to local call centers run by nonprofit organizations, where they are answered by a combination of permanent staff and trained volunteers. The centers usually pay the bills with public funds and private donations.

The FCC has ordered phone companies to direct all 988 calls to the suicide lifeline by July 16, 2022. Congress backed the move by allowing states to collect phone charges “on the fly.” 9-8-8 services support ”. The Biden administration has released $ 282 million to help states launch 988.

Proponents recognize that if phone charges are high enough, revenues could exceed the costs of running call centers. But they say better crisis response could ultimately save money by easing the burden on emergency services and the police.

“With a relatively small amount per person, there could be a big payoff,” said Bob Gebbia, executive director of the US nonprofit Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

In Kansas, mental health advocates are backing a bill that charges 50 cents 988 to raise $ 17.4 million a year. The money could be used for call centers, “mobile crisis response services” and a new statewide suicide prevention coordinator.

“The reality is that we didn’t have the funding through our general state fund” to provide adequate crisis services, “said Ms. Kurz, of the Kansas nonprofit. “Telephone charges are a good solution because they obtain funding from a large majority of the population for services that are ideally accessible to everyone. “

Telecom lobbyists have suggested that the proposals create the possibility that the mission will deviate from the goal of responding quickly to crisis calls.

Federal Law 988 restricts the use of charges to expenses such as taking calls and dispatching, a Verizon lobbyist told Kansas lawmakers in a March 2021 email viewed by the Wall Street Journal.

Ms Kurz disputed this interpretation, but the Kansas bill was not passed last year. The next session of the legislature is scheduled to begin on Monday.

Write to Ryan Tracy at [email protected]

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