By Jasmine Hall
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — A bill that would create a sustainable trust fund for a suicide prevention and mental health crisis system was the subject of debate Thursday.
The House Revenue Committee was split 6-3 in its vote to approve House Bill 65, and an amendment to remove the $40 million appropriation for the 988 system trust fund account was defeated before the bill advanced.
The legislation establishes the 988 system for suicide prevention by providing requirements and rule making authority, assigning duties to the Wyoming Department of Health and creating an advisory board. Although the system is already in place for residents to call after being propped up by federal dollars received during the COVID-19 pandemic, this bill would set the program into stone for future generations.
While outlining the services, mobile crisis teams and ensuring the Department of Health may pay for a person not covered by health insurance, it also appropriates funding. HB 65 calls for $40 million from the Legislative Stabilization Reserve Account to go to a trust fund, along with $6 million for a reserve account.
The 988 dialing code was established nationally in 2020, but the funding from the state would ensure that Wyoming residents staff the phones. Supporters of the bill said residents will connect with counselors who understand the culture, values and people of the state.
“It will be the front door for mental health access. Whether Wyoming wants to or not, we don’t have that choice anymore,” said Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers Executive Director Andi Summerville. “We feel it’s important to have that service online in Wyoming and robust, so that we can continue to work with the continuum of care to hospitals and community mental health centers to get people the services that they need.”
Summerville was among the many stakeholders who came forward in support of the bill, but Republican Representatives John Bear of Gillette, Tomi Strock of Douglas and Tony Locke of Casper strayed from the majority in their “no” votes. Bear said he was aware that President Joe Biden’s administration was allocating additional funding for the national 988 system, and he wanted to wait a few years before establishing a long-term trust fund for the program.
Others who testified against the bill said it was a spiritual matter, rather than the government’s responsibility to address.
Cathy Ide, who is the wife of Sen. Bob Ide, R-Casper, came forward to share her own personal connection to the legislation. Her son died by suicide, and she said her stance in opposition of the bill would likely surprise the committee.
“I believe that it’s clearly evident that the issue of suicide is spiritual in nature,” she testified. “If a family that loves a child more than anything, and you can’t describe it—if you are not able to save your child, how can you possibly believe that a government program can? No state agency can heal a broken, wounded spirit.”
She said people should look at the many failed government programs, the war on drugs or the Department of Family Services in order to see that “government can never be the solution to issues of the heart.”
Ide said it would be far better for private, faith-based organizations to lead the efforts to prevent suicide, and she wasn’t alone.
Newly elected Rep. Bill Allemand, R-Midwest, described his own encounter with a young woman who died by suicide and said her friend on the phone couldn’t save her.
“I don’t see how this bill is going to help us,” he said. “It’s going to cost us money. If I thought it would help one little bit, I would say, ‘Yeah, let’s double it.’”
Emotional stories came from both sides of the argument.
Former Rep. Pat Sweeney reflected on the loss of his brother and friends over the years; Cheyenne resident Richard Garrett said he was devastated by his sister’s death by suicide; and Donna Birkholz said the passing of a community member inspired her involvement with the Wyoming Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention board.
The three stakeholders testified on behalf of the suicide prevention bill, alongside many other mental health care advocates. They said having a Wyomingite answer the phone, provide local services or even track down a resident in crisis was worth establishing the trust fund.
“We’re working so hard, but we need help. Obviously, with Wyoming as the number one per-capita suicide rate state in the nation, we need more than we’re getting,” Birkholz said. “What we’re asking today is that the Legislature really pass this bill and begin working more toward strengthening 988 in the state of Wyoming.”
When it came to the trust fund, there were those who looked to other investments funded by the state. Rob Hendry, vice chairman of the Wyoming Business Alliance and the Heritage Foundation, asked legislators if there is a trust fund for wildlife, why couldn’t there be one set up for people in crisis?
In the end, the bill was pushed forward by the House Revenue Committee on to general file. It will be considered by the full House of Representatives in the coming days, and the chamber will have the opportunity to debate the future of funding for the program.
“I know a lot of people have worked hard on this,” said committee member Rep. Liz Storer, D-Jackson, before the vote. “If the supposition is that the government doesn’t have a role to play in keeping and improving people’s lives in Wyoming, and supporting the common good, and making a difference, and even in saving a life, as happens quite often in my county, then we should all just go home now.”