LEGISLATIVE NEWS: Orwall bill to implement and improve the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline passes House unanimously

OLYMPIA—The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a new crisis hotline that people can call for help in behavioral health emergencies separate from 911. In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission designated 988 as the new nationwide three-digit number for suicide prevention. In 2021, Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, sponsored HB 1477 to support the new number and expand behavioral health crisis response and suicide prevention services in Washington. The line went live in July 2022. Last night, House Bill 1134, a new bill from Orwall to continue the implementation of the line passed the Washington House of Representatives unanimously.

“There are really three components of the 988 line, there is a place to call, a person to respond, and a place to go,” said Orwall. “This bill is really about a person to respond and how we prepare for that. About 5% of the people who call the 988 line need outreach and a clinical response. We are trying to stand up teams that can rapidly respond so that when someone is suicidal, a trained behavioral health specialist can respond as an alternative to law enforcement.  We want to make sure that wherever you call 988 in this state, you get the trauma-informed clinical help that you need. These services really save lives and they are needed now more than ever.”

HB 1134 is the result of work with stakeholders and service providers from all over the state. It builds on and expands 988’s services. The bill creates an endorsement for 988 rapid-response crisis teams. Endorsed 988 teams will be the primary response team for individuals experiencing a significant behavioral health emergency that requires an urgent in-person response. The goal is for these teams to be available within 20 minutes in an urban area, 30 minutes in a suburban area, and dispatched with 10 minutes in a rural area by 2027. The also bill creates 988 contact hubs, which is a contact center that streamlines clinical interventions and access to resources for people experiencing a behavioral health crisis. It lays out the ways that these 988 contact hubs must make information available as well as the development of 988 rapid response crisis teams and how they will collaborate with their region’s behavioral health administrative services organization (BHASO).

Importantly around 30% of the rapid response funding will be provided to Washington’s Native American tribes to enhance responses to the Native and Strong line. American Indians and Alaska Natives experience the highest suicide rates overall and saw the biggest increase in suicide rates (26%) between 2018-2021.

The bill also tasks the University of Washington School of Social Work in consultation with the Washington Council for Behavioral Health, and BHSAOs to convene a stakeholder group and develop recommendations for the creation of training for personnel in the behavioral health crisis system specific to 988. It also includes liability protection for errors or omissions made in good faith and the creation of a Crisis Response Improvement Strategy Committee as well as a 988 Geolocation Subcommittee to consider privacy issues related to a person’s location.

“We launched 988 in July after spending a couple of years preparing for it. I’m really proud; I think we’ve done some incredible stuff. Our call centers have call, text, or chat. We have the first Native and Strong line in the country,” said Orwall. “But this bill is really trying to take the next step and actually have 988 crisis teams that can respond to a behavioral health crisis in the community.”

The bill passed the House with a vote of 95-0. It now heads to the Senate for consideration.