Mental health advocates and state lawmakers are calling for a 50-cent cell phone tax to expand Oregon’s 988 suicide prevention and crisis hotline. The line has seen increased demand since being launched last year.
The Oregon Behavioral Health and Health Care Committee on Monday heard overwhelming testimony in support of House Bill 2757, which would fund the 988 hotline and help it extend its reach. Proponents of the bill said the easy-to-remember number should be an integral part of a broader effort to revamp and expand Oregon’s lagging mental health services. But the telecommunications industry expressed concern about how it’ll be funded.
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline connects people having a mental health crisis or their family with a counselor trained to defuse the situation and direct callers to resources. Launched in July of 2022, the hotline is operated primarily by the Portland-based nonprofit Lines for Life with Northwest Human Services serving Marion and Polk counties. Both nonprofits have previously run crisis hotlines.
“Our current healthcare crisis system we have now doesn’t respond to our needs, if it responds at all,” Chris Bouneff, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness told the committee.
Bouneff called the call centers operating the line “critical infrastructure” to give people in crisis an option besides calling 911. He said people in a behavioral health crisis are currently more likely to get armed police officers who may or may not be trained for the situation.
Dwight Holton, CEO of Lines for Life, told the committee that after the launch of 988, his organization saw a nearly 50% increase in call volume compared to the same six-month-period the previous year. In December 2022, Lines for Life answered roughly 3,500 calls, compared to 2,500 calls a year ago, according to numbers he presented.
Congress in 2020 passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act that directed states to set up 988 as part of an effort to make the new number as recognizable nationwide as 911. The Oregon Legislature in 2021 approved $15 million to set up the hotline and establish mobile crisis intervention teams.
State Rep. Tawna Sanchez, a Portland Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, said her proposal would help build up the state’s mental health care system to “the way it should have been in the first place” after the pandemic exposed its shortcomings. She said Oregon initially used federal pandemic relief funds to set up 988, and it now needs ongoing funding. The bill seeks to have a more regionally focused 988, which she said currently has a limited presence in more remote parts of the state.
“If you called in, say someplace in southern Oregon, you might get Lines for Life,” she said. “But you won’t get somebody down there in southern Oregon who knows what’s going on there and who can refer you to services there, necessarily.”
Stacy England, program supervisor of Clackamas County’s mobile crisis team, said her group is accessed through 988 and works closely with local law enforcement, first responders and others to connect residents with the right mental health resources.
She mentioned one success story where her team helped a woman suffering from cancer and a head injury from a domestic assault who was considering suicide. England said her team connected the woman with medical and mental health care along with permanent housing.
“An ongoing area of need is enough funding to meet the needs of the community in (the) geographic size of our county,” she said.
England said a minimum of 29 full-time positions are required to meet the county’s need, more than the current 14. Ideally, she said teams would be stationed across the county to reduce response times and to serve more rural areas.
The bill sets up a trust fund dedicated to 988 and imposes a 50-cent monthly tax per line on cell phone customers. It also places a 50-cent tax for each retail transaction on prepaid wireless services. No fiscal impact statement for the bill has been released yet.
“This is not going to be cheap in the long run,” Sanchez told the committee.
Jake Lestock, director of state legislative affairs for wireless communications trade group CTIA, told the committee that most states are implementing their 988 lines using their general funds and federal contributions instead of raising taxes. He said the 50-cent tax is higher than the initial 20- to 25-cent phone surcharge fee recommended in an Oregon Health Authority report.
“These types of telecom taxes are highly regressive when cell phones are the gateway to the internet for many Oregon residents,” he said.