LEGISLATIVE WATCH WYOMING: House Bill Setting Up Trust Fund for Suicide Prevention Services Passes Committee of the Whole
Lawmakers discuss need for mental health resources, but question funding
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Jan 20, 2023
By Shen Wu Tan
Special to the Wyoming Truth
A bill that would establish a trust fund as a sustainable means of financing in-state 24/7 suicide prevention services passed committee of the whole in the House on Thursday.
The legislation, House Bill 65, or “988 suicide prevention,” passed the House Committee of the Whole with a vote of 34-23, opening the bill to amendments and actions by the chamber. The bill would create a “permanent and perpetual” trust fund for 988, the national mental health crisis hotline system that debuted nationwide in July.
The trust fund could collect money through federal grants, gifts, donations and other contributions. As it currently stands, the bill allocates $40 million from the legislative stabilization reserve account to the 988 system trust fund account, while $6 million would go to the trust fund reserve account.
Starting each fiscal year beginning July 1, 2024, earnings from the 988 trust fund would be appropriated to the Wyoming Department of Health, allowing it to spend 5% of the previous five-year average market value of the trust fund account. Until the trust fund has been in place for five years, its average market value would be the average market value of the years it has existed.
Many lawmakers in the House on Thursday took to the floor to express their thoughts on the bill. Several discussed a need for suicide prevention services, but also voiced concerns about financing them.
“What we’ve learned is that a lot of it, when people are in crisis, it’s somebody putting a hand on their shoulder and being there for them, talking to them – that’s how a lot of it is resolved,” said Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper) from the floor. “And so, that’s the real commitment to this, that somebody’s going to be on the other end of that line in Wyoming…. 988 is here to stay. It’s not going away.”
Rep. Bill Allemand (R-Midwest) also took to the podium, sharing a story about his niece’s best friend who died by suicide despite his niece’s efforts to convince her otherwise.
“My niece spent a half hour trying to talk her out of it before it happened, on the phone to her very best friend,” Allemand said. “If your very best friend and your co-worker can’t talk you out of it, I don’t know anybody who can…. This bill, I could support it if it was $2 million and then $2 million next year and then $2 million after that. But $46 million, I don’t think I can do because I don’t think it’s going to help…. If you prove to me that you can stop this or even put a big dent in it, I’ll give you $100 million. But as of today, folks, I just don’t see this happening. I don’t see a big help here.”
The launch of 988
For years, Wyoming has had one of the highest suicide rates in the nation. In 2021, Wyoming saw 189 suicides, or 32.8 suicides per 100,000 individuals – the most reported since 2004 when the state health department began publishing data. The suicide rate for Wyoming is also more than double the nationwide rate of 13.5 suicides per 100,000 people. The 2021 suicide rate is up from the 30.6 rate recorded by the health department for 2020.
When 988 launched in July, Wyoming obtained around-the-clock, in-state coverage of suicide calls through the distribution of federal grants. But mental health advocates have pushed for permanent funding. Wyoming LifeLine in Greybull and the Central Wyoming Counseling Center in Casper received $60,000 each in federal funding to expand their hotline services to 24/7 coverage.
The federal funding allowed both call centers to add two more hours of coverage and for Wyoming LifeLine to hire another staff member, Ralph Nieder-Westermann, executive director of Wyoming LifeLine, previously told the Wyoming Truth. Wyoming LifeLine now covers calls from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the Central Wyoming Counseling Center takes calls from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Last year, the health department approved proposals from the two current call centers for the $2.1 million in COVID-19 relief funds approved by the governor for expanded suicide prevention services, according to Matthew Petry, senior administrator for the department’s behavioral health division.
Yet, those are one-time relief funds that will run out. So stakeholders in the mental health field are trying to figure out ways to sustainably fund these scaled up services.
Before lawmakers voted on House Bill 65, Rep. Tamara Trujillo (R-Cheyenne) asked her fellow legislators to balance the need for suicide prevention services with fiscal responsibility. While at the podium, she said she’s known 17 people who died by suicide during her lifetime, including two family members.
“Suicide awareness is a big thing, and the 988 is a good program,” Trujillo said. “I’m hoping this line helps. However, we need to be fiscally responsible and look at the money we are putting into this trust and the usage and where we are with it. So, I just ask that you guys look at the numbers, but sufficiently fund this at the same time.”