January 5, 2022 Blogs

Phone-Bill Fees to Fund Suicide Hotline Spark Statehouse Debates — Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—Skirmishes are breaking out at statehouses across the U.S. over how to pay for a new suicide hotline.

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

State officials are weighing whether to impose new fees on consumers’ phone bills to pay for 988 and expand mental-health crisis services. Government data show the coronavirus pandemic has exacted a toll on Americans’ mental health. In 2020, a record 2.39 million calls were placed to the national suicide hotline.

The 988 number will work in July no matter what happens with any proposed state fees. Mental-health advocates anticipate the easy-to-remember 988 will lead to a further rise in calls, and they want to add new monthly fees on telephone bills to pay for a better crisis-response system.

“If there’s not sufficient staff, people will continue to call the service. They’ll have longer wait lines,” said Monica Kurz, vice president at the Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ, one of three groups that answers lifeline calls in the state. “I think that people will hang up, and I think that that will cost lives.”

Telecom companies and conservatives support 988 but say any fees should be kept low and be limited to covering the cost of handling calls.

“The bill imposes a new tax on our wireless consumers,” said Margaret Morgan, a lobbyist for T-Mobile US Inc., at a public hearing in Montana last year about a proposed 10-cent phone-bill fee estimated to raise $1.5 million annually for crisis-response services in the state.

Ms. Morgan said T-Mobile supported the 988 number but the legislation lacked program details and looked like a “blank check.” The bill didn’t pass.

The debate echoes one over phone-bill fees to fund the 911 emergency number.

In 2019, five states diverted about $200 million in 911 fees or surcharges for “non-911 related public safety programs” such as buying police body cameras or subsidizing wireless radio towers, according to an FCC report. Some states disputed the finding, but Congress in 2020 directed the FCC to impose new limits on how 911 fees are spent.

Telephone fees or surcharges to fund 988 call centers have been enacted by at least four states—Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Washington. A 40-cent fee enacted in Washington last year is expected to raise about $46 million annually.

The 988 launch provided an “opportunity to redesign our crisis system to make it more responsive,” said Washington state Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat.

Ms. Orwall said she expected the fees could help double staffing levels at 988 call centers, allowing them to offer more counseling and follow-up with patients. In some cases mental-health teams might be able to respond in lieu of police or paramedics, she said, if there isn’t a public safety or medical emergency.

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

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

The conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation called the proposed fee a “de facto tax increase on Idahoans.” Lawmakers shelved the fee and are now looking to tap federal or state dollars to support 988, said state Rep. Laurie Lickley, a Republican.

In California, state lawmakers last year debated but didn’t adopt a fee of up to 80 cents per phone line that would have generated an estimated $192 million annually.

Other states that considered the fees last year but didn’t adopt them include Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and Kansas. New York legislators commissioned a report on potential new revenue sources to cover 988-related services.

The national suicide-prevention lifeline started in 2005. Calls generally get routed by area code to local call centers run by nonprofits, where they are answered by a combination of permanent staff and trained volunteers. The centers typically pay the bills with government funding 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 authorizing states to collect phone bill fees “in support of 9-8-8 services.” The Biden administration has made $282 million available to help states launch 988.

Proponents acknowledge that if phone-bill fees are set high enough, revenues could exceed costs of running call centers. But they say improved crisis response ultimately could save money by lightening the burden on emergency rooms and police.

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

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

“The reality is that we have not had the funding through our state general fund” to provide adequate crisis services, said Ms. Kurz, of the Kansas nonprofit. “A phone fee is a good solution because it sources funding from a broad majority of the population for services that are ideally accessible to all people.”

Telecom lobbyists have suggested the proposals create the possibility of mission creep away from a focus on quickly answering crisis calls.

The federal 988 law limits the use of fees to expenses such as call-taking and dispatching, a Verizon lobbyist told Kansas lawmakers in a March 2021 email viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Ms. Kurz disputed that interpretation, but the Kansas bill didn’t pass last year. The legislature’s next session is scheduled to start Monday.

Write to Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
The current phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it is 1-800-273-LIFE. (Corrected on Jan. 5.)