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988 crisis line calls lawmakers for funding

A bill that would fund and formalize the 988 crisis lifeline into Alabama law received attention from groups making strong arguments about the next phase of its implementation. 

In a hearing Wednesday, lawmakers and state mental health officials advocated for the expansion of in-person mental health services connected to the system, while others raised concern about the cost being passed onto taxpayers. 

“Lives are being changed and saved by 988,” said Rex Reynolds, chairman of the House Ways & Means General Fund Committee.  “We’ve passed legislation, we’ve increased the number of hours for our police officers in dealing with those needing crisis care, we’ve changed the involuntary commitment law to better support what our professionals are doing at our crisis care centers.

“It would be a shame for all the work that has been put into this over the last four years.”

The idea of a dedicated national emergency number for mental health crises first came about in 2018, driven by the need to provide immediate assistance to those grappling with suicidal thoughts or emotional distress. The Federal Communications Commission approved the 988 number as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July 2020.

In 2022, Alabama joined other states by launching the federal 988 system for mental health, substance use, and suicide crises. Today, anyone can call the number and receive help. However, without funding sought by HB389, those options are limited. 

Kim Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, said the true benefit of 988 only begins by phone. 

“The Alabama 988 Act would establish the Alabama crisis care fund so that everyone can have access to someone to call, someone to come to you, or somewhere to go if you’re in crisis,” Boswell told the committee. “In just one year, our crisis center served over 2,100 individuals.

“Of the individuals served, 412 were people who were suicidal and went to the crisis center, 469 avoided jail, and over 1,500 avoided the emergency department and 140 were dropped off by law enforcement at a crisis center instead of jail.”

The expansion comes with a price tag. A statewide 988 surcharge will be imposed on all landline, wireless, and other wireless voice communication services at a proposed rate of 98 cents per line per month – which is one of the highest proposed rates in the country. 

Wireless providers will collect the surcharge and send funds to the Alabama Department of Revenue, which will transfer them to the Alabama 988 Crisis Care Fund. 

CTIA’s Jake Lestock, speaking on behalf of those wireless providers, told the committee that, while everyone supports the idea of providing more services through 988, the funding should come from an existing budget. 

“HB389 proposes a minimum new tax of 98 cents per line per month, not to exceed $3,” Lestock said. “Even if the lowest proposed tax rate were implemented, 98 cents would be the most expensive 988 tax in the nation and more than double the next highest tax of 40 cents per month in Washington state.” 

Sen. Garland Gudger is leading the Senate effort to support the 988 system. He and law enforcement officials say mental health situations that can be better dealt with by a crisis system are falling to emergency first responders who are already stretched too thin. 

“We’re using law enforcement and the resources we have there and using it for personnel, and that costs money, and we’re taking them to the hospital or jail, using our taxpayers money, and they’re not really equipped to handle these issues,” Gudger (R-Cullman) said. “So why don’t we correct that problem and have a 988 number that people can call?”

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency agreed. 

“Law enforcement is a last resort for citizens of Alabama. You call 911, when you don’t have anyone else to call,” an ALEA official told the committee. “And as well-trained as our police officers are, as well-trained as our state troopers are, they will never be as well-trained in mental health as a mental health professional 988 gives the opportunity for an individual in a crisis to get the best help that the state has available.”

Holly McCorkle, executive director of the Alabama Council for Behavioral Health Care which represents the mental health providers who are responsible for answering the 988 calls, said the need for funding is dire.

“Callers to 988 have ranged as young as 12 to the elderly, from homeless to CEOs,” McCorkle told the committee. “The most rewarding and difficult calls are the active rescues.

“We’ve had a number of those, getting assistance to someone who has already taken action to end their life is at the moment a difficult thing to do.

“But then you realize you have just saved a life. Having a phone number to call is essential for people who need help, but it is not enough by itself.”

Grayson Everett is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @Grayson270 for coverage of the 2023 legislative session. 

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