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988 crisis care hotline bills in committee Wednesday

New legislation to put a $.98 per-month surcharge on phone lines in the state to fund mental health crisis care is expected in House and Senate committees today.

According to the Alabama Department of Mental Health, the 98-cent surcharge was suggested by the state’s 988 Commission to meet funding needs to build and sustain 988 call centers, expand mobile crisis teams statewide and add additional crisis centers in cities of 50,000 or more. 

That amount equals what is annually needed to fund crisis services statewide, ADMH said.

The bipartisan 2020 National Suicide Hotline Designation Act signed into law by President Donald Trump made 988 the new three-digit phone number for mental health emergencies effective July 2022. It authorizes states to assess a fee for providing 988 and crisis services.

The $.98 monthly surcharge would generate about $69 million per year for a new Alabama 988 Crisis Care Fund, according to the a fiscal note on the original bill.

“House Bill 389, the Alabama 988 Act, is an opportunity to ensure sustainable funding for 988 and the expansion of crisis services, which we know are saving lives,” Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Kimberly Boswell told Alabama Daily News. “In just nine months over 34,000 Alabamians called 988 in crisis. In just one year, 2100 individuals walked into three of the Crisis Centers in our state, and 412 were suicidal. Their lives were saved.

But right now there are 48 counties in our state with no access to crisis services. We hope to see the AL 988 Act continue through to passage, to ensure crisis services and mental health access for all Alabamians.” 

During a public hearing last week, Jake Lestock, representing a trade association for wireless carriers, said the industry understands the importance of the 988 framework, but questioned the amount of the surcharge, saying it would be the most expensive 988 tax in the nation.

“Most states have been pursuing alternative avenues rather than imposing a new tax on their residents,” he said.

House Bill 389 is sponsored by Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, and a substitute bill is expected in the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee, which he chairs, today.

Meanwhile, Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, filed Senate Bill 328 on Tuesday.

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled this afternoon in the Senate Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development Committee, which Gudger chairs.

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