Kansas House committee settles on 20-cent fee for suicide prevention hotline

TOPEKA — After two days of work on a bill, a House committee on Wednesday accepted a proposed fee for mobile and landline phones when Kansans seek help on a national suicide hotline from the end of the year.

The House Health and Human Services Committee, led by Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, has set a monthly fee of 20 cents for anyone contacting the hotline number, 988. To complete the funding necessary to allow more response services to flow through the hotline, lawmakers agreed to an additional $3 million to be transferred from the state’s general fund to the hotline fund.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a helpline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified auditor, call 800-273 8255.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak to a qualified auditor, text HELLO to 741741. It’s free, available 24/7 and confidential.

Potential expenses the Kansas Department of Aging and Disabilities faces include establishing helplines, crisis intervention services, and suicide prevention services, among others. Proponents say the bill is an important piece of the suicide prevention puzzle and worth the cost.

“An easy-to-remember helpline number will increase the chances that vulnerable people can reach out and seek help in a crisis,” said Shayla Sullivant, a child psychiatrist. “By making this issue short and easy to remember, we are sending an important message to our community. We send the message that we understand mental health issues are real…and deserve our immediate attention.

House Bill 2281 establishes the full framework for the system, which has received support from the Attorney General’s office, several Kansas police associations, medical professionals and other stakeholders. After amending the bill to secure a compromise on program funding, the committee forwarded the bill to the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee.

According to data collected by Kansas Vital Statistics, the suicide rate in Kansas increased by 69.9%, from 11.3 to 19.2 per 100,000 people between 1999 and 2018. The 2018 suicide rate was the highest high of the last 20 years and is higher than the national rate of 14.2, which has increased by 35% over the same period.

According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 521 Kansans lost their lives to suicide in 2019, with far-reaching implications beyond their deaths. From 2015 to 2017, Kansas resident suicides cost an estimated $2.24 billion in medical costs and lost work, and 46,837 years of potential life lost.

“We, the State of Kansas, must now do our part to help support this vital legislation and the necessary funding to ensure that there will always be someone on the other end of the line when perhaps you, me or one of our family members is asking for help,” said Jeff Cardwell, who lost his son to suicide nine years ago. “(The fee) is a very small price to pay to have that help when needed.”

While lawmakers were eager to provide these services, they also wanted to ensure that certain businesses and poor Kansans were not unfairly charged. Representative Tory Arnberger-Blew, R-Great Bend, proposed a cap on the amount a company could be billed per month of $50, or 250 lines, later changed to $10, or 50 lines.

Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, suggested adding another layer to minimize costs for those living below the poverty line. Both amendments failed due to a lack of financial clarity on what this would do for program funding.

“I’m looking for the company, a company that has multiple lines,” Arnberger-Blew said. “I’ll take it to the ground and get the tax note with it.”