ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota Legislature this session signed off on a new telecom fee to fund 988, the shortened suicide prevention lifeline number that launched last summer.
The fee will be up to 25 cents tacked onto monthly phone bills starting next year. There's a similar surcharge to support 911 emergency services that varies nationwide.
Mental health advocates are celebrating the step at the state capitol, which they believe will help ensure that Minnesotans answer the in-state calls to the number. Having someone in a state call center means those on the other line will be connected to local mental health resources when they're in a crisis.
"It's about building capacity and it's really critical those get answered in the state," said Shannah Mulvihill, executive director of Mental Health Minnesota. "If it doesn't get answered here in Minnesota, it will get answered, but by someone else in another state at one of the backup centers that are unaware that we've developed a 24/7 mobile crisis system."
Five other states have implemented a telecommunications fee to fund 988, while other states have allocated money from their state budgets, according to an analysis by Kaiser Family Foundation.
Mulvihill said the fee will initially be 12 cents, capped at a quarter, which will bring in $9.8 million a year. That money will be deposited into a special state account for the 988 service. Federal legislation by Congress establishing the new number authorized such fees to sustain it.
"I believe that by adopting the telecom fee in Minnesota, that really does put us in the front of the pack, frankly, in terms of 988 implementation," she added.
A year before the launch of the shortened number, in-state call centers only answered 37% of Minnesotans' calls to the lifeline, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health. When it took effect, that rate shot up to 87% by July of 2022.
That's stayed mostly consistent through April, the month with the most recent data available. Calls have also increased since the change.
"I've been really pleased with the rollout," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota. "I have to admit we were all kind of nervous because there wasn't a lot of funding towards it, but I think the call centers and the department have done a great job in really trying to meet the needs of Minnesotans."
But the number of 988 texts answered by Minnesotans is much lower at 22% in April. Abderholden said the funding boost will support expanding access to that service, which will have the largest impact on younger Minnesotans who are more inclined to text instead of call.
Lawmakers passed it in the state budget for human services. But that fee, which was a top priority for mental health organizations, was just one of a slate of policies to pass the legislature this year.
The legislature also said OK to grants to address the workforce shortage of mental health providers; support the hiring of mental health personnel in schools; and require insurance coverage for psychiatric treatment of children, among other provisions.
Abderholden believes that while there were policy successes, overall funding for mental health programs and reimbursement rates fell short.
"One of the things to think about with 988 is we have to make sure people have services they can access if that's what they need," she said.
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