Wyoming Legislature Committee Approves Bill that Would Establish Trust Fund for 988 Suicide Lifeline Services
Mental health advocates call for permanent funding to expand suicide prevention resources
- Published In: Politics
- Last Updated: Nov 22, 2022
Wyoming reported a suicide rate of 32.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, the highest rate recorded for the state since 2004 when the health department started publishing data. The state's suicide rate is more than double the nationwide rate of 13.5 deaths per 100,000 people. (Wyoming Truth graphic by Shen Wu Tan, data courtesy of Wyoming Department of Health)
By Shen Wu Tan
Special to the Wyoming Truth
A Wyoming legislature committee on Monday approved a bill that would establish a trust fund as a sustainable means of funding in-state 24/7 suicide lifeline coverage – a call to action many stakeholders in the mental health community have advocated as Wyoming reached a new record high suicide rate for 2021.
The Joint Revenue Interim Committee voted 11-3 on the bill, which would create a “permanent and perpetual” trust fund for 988, the national and mental health crisis hotline system that debuted nationwide in July; the trust fund could collect money through federal grants, gifts, donations and other contributions. With the launch of 988, Wyoming obtained around-the-clock, in-state coverage of suicide calls for the first time earlier this year via federal grants, but mental health advocates have pushed for permanent funding to support these services.
“This does create a sustainable funding stream that I think that a number of stakeholders across the state have agreed is a good idea,” Andi Summerville, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, told committee members about the 988 trust fund bill.
“This is another critical piece of investment into what I would call a behavioral health reform process that’s been going on for the last two years…,” she added. “The 988 system is a critical component into getting people into services and care earlier in the process and trying to provide that access to care for our residents.”
Under the bill, $40 million from the legislative stabilization reserve account would go 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, the 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.
“We are number one in a place that’s not good to be number one in, in suicides per capita in the nation,” Summerville said. “From a personal standpoint, I would like to get out of the number one spot and keep more of our community members around.”
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.
Seventy-two percent of suicide victims in Wyoming took their lives using firearms, while about 22% died by hanging and nearly 4% from poisoning, according to the data from the health department. Out of the 13 of 23 counties that reported suicide rates, Platte County ranked the highest with 80.5 deaths per 100,000 people. Teton County recorded the lowest suicide rate of 16.6 deaths per 100,000 individuals.
Last month, the health department approved proposals from the two current call centers, Central Wyoming Counseling Center and Wyoming LifeLine, for the $2.1 million in one-time COVID-19 relief funds approved by the governor for expanded suicide prevention services, said Matthew Petry, senior administrator for the department’s behavioral health division. The call centers are currently negotiating contracts with the department.
Ralph Nieder-Westermann, president and executive director of Wyoming LifeLine, told the revenue committee that the organization’s goal is to triage calls and reach people in crisis before they need the services of local mental health facilities.
“The stigma of suicide and death by suicide is tremendous and that’s one of the real benefits, I think, of having 988 because people can call us—and do call us—when they are not comfortable parking their pickup in front of the counseling center in their little town…,” he said. “We need sustainable funding that we can count on…It is important that we have qualified, dedicated staff to answer these calls.”
Wyoming expanded its in-state suicide hotline services to 24/7 coverage in July in preparation for the rollout of 988, the new national suicide and crisis hotline number. Wyoming LifeLine in Greybull and the Central Wyoming Counseling Center in Casper received $60,000 each in federal funding to expand their hotline services.
The federal funding allowed both call centers to add two more hours of coverage and for Wyoming LifeLine to hire another staff member, Nieder-Westermann 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.
Summerville from the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers estimates that $1 million to $2 million in annual funds is needed for call centers in Wyoming to operate 24/7.
Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson), a member of the Joint Revenue Interim Committee who voted “yes” for the 988 trust fund account bill on Monday, said, “The hotline won’t continue unless we fund it, and we won’t be able to fund it unless we have a bill going forward that does it. So I think, no matter what, if you support the hotline, we would need to have a bill continuing to fund it as a vehicle going into the session.”
Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper), a committee member who voted “no” on the measure, expressed concerns about establishing a trust fund for expanded suicide prevention services. Instead, he suggested amending the bill to allocate $2 million from the general fund to be included as part of the health department’s standard budget for the 988 suicide hotline services, rather than establishing a trust fund.
“This is an important issue. It is a key function of government, and that’s why I think it should be funded by the general fund,” Gray said. “This is a need, and I am a little concerned by the discussion that the general fund is not a sustainable, or not a permanent, funding source. It is a permanent funding source. It’s actually our most stable funding source by far, and it is the intent of the general fund to fund needs of the state, and this is a need.”
Gray’s amendment failed to pass the committee.
The bill establishing the 988 trust fund could be introduced during the next general legislative session, which begins Jan. 10.