A bill to set up “988” as a new emergency number for mental health crises in California was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday.
Assembly Bill 988, authored by Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda), will create the 988 Crisis Hotline Center. The Center will follow the standards established by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline with the Office of Emergency Services (OES) in charge of implementing the new emergency number system within California, including hiring a director and designating a 988 crisis hotline center or centers to provide crisis intervention services and crisis care coordination to those who dial 988 for help.
Mental health counselors will be sent instead of police officers in those scenarios, but both 911 and 988 operators will coordinate if any of their services would be needed for each others emergencies, such as a call for police and emergency services also needing a mental health counselor.
According to AB 988, all crisis centers set up before 2024 will also be given time to meet the new 988 regulations, with all centers being required to be compliant with all regulations by January 2024. Individual counties will be required to make crisis services available not only over the phone, but by having mobile crisis teams and crisis receiving and stabilization services available to those who need it.
The bill, also known as the Miles Hall Lifeline and Suicide Prevention Act, will require health care service plans and insurers to cover medically necessary treatment of a mental health or substance use disorder, including behavioral health crisis services, provided by a 988 center or mobile crisis team, regardless of whether the service is provided by an in-network or out-of-network provider, at the in-network cost-sharing amount.
The 988 service will be funded similarly to 911 services funded by phone and mobile phone surcharges of 0.0075%, or three-fourths of one percent, for each bill. A 988 surcharge will be added to phone and mobile phone bills, with the OES setting the as of yet not calculated surcharge amount. AB 988 would also create a new fund, the 988 State Mental Health and Crisis Services Special Fund, where surcharge fees who be deposited. The bill states that it will then be dispersed to fund county 988 crisis centers.
Assemblywoman Bauer-Kahan authored the bill shortly after the FCC designated 988 as a national telephone number for suicide prevention and mental health crises.
“The current system relies on law enforcement and confinement and puts people suffering from mental illness through an expensive and traumatizing revolving-door as they shuttle between jails, emergency rooms, and the street,” Bauer-Kahan said in a statement last year. “A comprehensive crisis response system can help prevent these tragedies, save money, and increase access to the right kind of care. We must make significant changes in how we respond to those suffering from a mental health crisis.”
AB 988 was in the works since February 2021
Since being introduced in February 2021, AB 988 has had a rocky time getting approval. Many lawmakers, concerned about the costs of the bill, as well as a need for such a program due to the large number of mental health services already operating in California, either voted against the bill in legislative committees or abstained. Following an Assembly vote in June 2021, the bill was subsequently put on hiatus for an entire year before coming back amended for a Senate vote.
While opposition remained strong, especially with Assembly Republicans, AB 988 passed the Assembly last month 64-0 and the Senate 38-0.
“More and more people have been won-over by a need for an easy to remember number to reach urgent mental health services,” explained Zachary Parker, a suicide hotline volunteer manager, to the Globe on Friday. The pandemic really brought forward mental health needs and made a lot of them more visible. Plus with a growing number of high profile people sharing their stories and the rise of suicides and mass shootings, a place to dial for mental health help at a very low taxpayer cost attracted a lot of people to support this.”
Governor Newsom agreed on Friday, both signing the bill and directing the California Health and Human Services Agency to clean up language in the new law to create a full response system blueprint in time for the 2023-2024 state budget.
“I am signing Assembly Bill 988, which enacts the Miles Hall Lifeline and Suicide Prevention Act to establish 9-8-8 centers in California for the purpose of connecting individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis with suicide prevention and mental health services,” Governor Newsom said in his signing message. “Importantly, this bill also provides a dedicated revenue source to fund a 9-8-8 system in California.”
“While the work of my Administration is ongoing, dedicated resources supporting a comprehensive 9-8-8 system are needed, as are clear policies for how this system will interact with the overall behavioral health continuum. While this bill attempts to provide those needed resources and policy direction, as drafted, the use of revenue generated is unduly restricted. This creates considerable confusion about how certain services will be financed, and could severely limit the full potential of the behavioral health crisis response promised by the bill.”
“Without refinements to these provisions and others, our effort to establish a comprehensive suicide and behavioral health crisis response system – one that can help prevent avoidable tragedies and increase access to the right kind of care – will fall short. Therefore, I am directing the California Health and Human Services Agency to propose cleanup language as part of the 2023-24 Governor’s Budget to ensure this bill delivers on its promise to build a fully operational and comprehensive 9-8-8 system in California.”
AB 988 was one of dozens of bills signed into law by Governor Newsom on Thursday.
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