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Proposed phone tax would pay for suicide prevention efforts

Connecting people considering suicide with immediate help is the aim of a proposed law that funds a 988 emergency number with a new tax on phone lines.

HB 1477, introduced by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, is aimed at tackling issues within Washington’s crisis response system and easing the transition to the new number.

“This bill will do analysis of the current system including the gaps in crisis services,” Orwall said. “It will also consider more specialized crisis responses for tribes, youth and other high risk populations.”

The Federal Communications Commission designated 988 as the new national suicide prevention hotline number and provided a two-year transition period, ending July 2022, for all phone service providers to make the switch from the current 1-800-273-TALK number.

According to a 2019 FCC report to Congress, changing the number to 988 would be easier to remember and also help decrease the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health issues.

“The combination of the [988] number and the message that mental health crises and suicide prevention are of equivalent importance to [911] medical emergencies could improve local psychiatric crisis services over time,” the FCC concluded.

The bill under consideration in the state Legislature would establish a 988 state Implementation Team to provide guidance and resources to raise the in-state answering rate from 80% to 90%. Calls not answered by an in-state center are routed to the nearest call center, often in a neighboring state with less information on Washington resources.

With a global pandemic still a threat, Orwall plans to increase the capacity of call centers in-state and assess the current crisis system in Washington with the Crisis Response Improvement Strategy Committee.

The Committee would assess and guide state behavioral health crisis services as well as analyze the current system within Washington to discover and patch any gaps while the Washington Department of Health would help designate new call centers.

Funding for the program would be generated through a phone services tax in the same way funds are generated for the state’s 911 call centers.

The Washington 988 Behavioral Health Crisis Response Line Tax would gradually increase from 30 cents per month starting in Oct. 2021 up to 75 cents beginning July 2024 and would apply to each phone line in service during that time period.

Proceeds from the tax could only be used to fund matters directly related to running the 988 hotline, such as personnel budgets, call routing and crisis outreach.

The tax for the bill hasn’t received any negative public testimony since its introduction Feb. 3, which Rep. Orwall attributes to the bill’s necessity.

Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, the leading legislator against the current version bill, did not return emails asking for comment.

“For me, it’s asking people to make that investment,” Orwall said. “For a penny a day, we can create an incredible system that will respond to what people really need, and potentially save lives.”

Orwall sees rippling benefits generated by the investment.

“One in four police shootings (involve) someone experiencing a behavioral health crisis,” she said. “And many families don’t necessarily feel comfortable calling because they’re worried about an officer showing up. (The new 988 hotline) is allowing us to have a clinical response, and really move us in a direction where communities feel safe and supported.”

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