$40 Million For Suicide Hotline Trust Fund Bill Advances By 1 Vote

A proposal to put $40 million into a trust fund for Wyoming’s two 988 suicide hotline centers squeaked through the House for introduction Thursday, just barely meeting the two-thirds threshold to advance.

Leo Wolfson

February 16, 20246 min read

State Rep. John Conrad, R-Mountain View
State Rep. John Conrad, R-Mountain View (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

A proposal to put $40 million into a trust fund for Wyoming’s two 988 suicide hotline centers squeaked through the House for introduction Thursday, just barely meeting the two-thirds threshold to advance.

If there had been just one fewer vote Thursday, a bill putting $40 million into a trust fund for Wyoming’s two 988 suicide hotline centers would have died.

House Bill 186 was introduced 42-19, although one fewer ‘aye’ vote would’ve killed it. During a legislative budget session, any non-budget bill needs a two-thirds margin of approval to be introduced and advanced to a committee.

Funding the call centers was a contentious issue during last year’s legislative session as well. Although a bill creating a trust fund to benefit the 988 centers, legislators didn’t approve any money to put into the trust.

Andi Summerville, executive director for the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, has been one of the most vocal advocates for the call centers.

Summerville told Cowboy State Daily the passage of HB 186 on Thursday is critical as the legislation will now only need a majority vote of approval to continue advancing forward. Earlier in the week, some other mental health-related bills failed to clear the two-thirds hurdle.

“It’s very important, can’t underestimate the importance of that,” Summerville said. “It’s off to a good start.”

Uncertain Future

Wyoming’s two 24/7 suicide call centers, located in Casper and Greybull, are funded through the 2025 fiscal year but, but not beyond.

Aside from around $400,000 the federal government provided for the call centers in 2022, Wyoming has been footing the bill them, with no more promises of federal money coming at any time in the future. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso has introduced legislation that would improve 988 services around the nation.

The purpose of the trust fund is to set up a permanent funding source for the call centers that isn't dependent on the ebbs and flows of Wyoming’s mineral-dependent economy.

“Setting up the trust fund is a longer term, more sustainable source revenue future,” Summerville said.

Are They Working?

Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control from 2022 shows that Wyoming has improved from having the highest suicide rate in America to the third-highest, leap-frogging Alaska and Montana. Wyoming’s suicide rate is now at 25.9 per 100,000 people, a significant improvement from the previous rate of 32.3.

“The goal is to sustain that downward trend, and we believe with having that 988 fully operational with all of everything we need to support it, is going to be a really big piece of keeping that downward trend going,” Summerville said.

Rep. Jon Conrad, R-Mountain View, is the lead sponsor of HB 186.

“We’re not there yet, we need to be 50th,” Conrad said on the House floor.

Summerville said when studying what some of the U.S. states with the lowest suicide rates do, she has found a correlation between the offering of expansive suicide hotline programs and other early intervention efforts.

She said the average call pickup time at Wyoming’s two centers is seven seconds, with typically two to three people working at any given time.

Conrad considers 988 not only a hotline, but also a lifeline. He said if someone is pro-life on abortion or a follower of God, they should also support life after birth and the call centers.

The difficult part of advocating for the program is proving a correlation between the call centers and a drop in the rate of suicides.

“That’s not data that we’re ever going to be able to track,” Summerville said.

But the decline in suicide rate does coincide with the increase of services offered through the Wyoming call centers, which expanded to 24/7, 365 days a year in 2022 after operating on more limited hours since their creation in 2020.

The call centers received a 62% increase in calls in 2023.

Is It The Best Solution?

Some conservatives like Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, have argued government should play a more limited role in suicide prevention.

Bear said committing $40 million for the trust fund could set the state up with a budget crunch later down the road if it has to choose between mental health services, and believes the call center funding should be decided on a less committed, biennial basis.

“If this is off the budget, I guarantee if this is not the best solution, it won’t be touched,” he said.

Rep. Scott Heiner, R-Green River, agreed and described the call centers as “marginally successful.”

“We’re not finished, let’s continue to talk about this,” he said.

Since August 2022, more than 15,268 calls have been answered at the two call centers. Only 2% of the calls made resulted in the escalation of emergency services.

“So, 98% of the calls, those callers are able to get the services they need, get connected, diffuse the situation,” Summerville said.

Casting some unexpected votes in support of Thursday’s measure were Republicans Reps. Dalton Banks, R-Cowley, and Daniel Singh, R-Cheyenne. Both voted against the trust fund last year.

Singh said after meeting with the Laramie County coroner about the issue of suicide, his position has somewhat shifted.

“I found it appropriate to continue the conversation in Committee of the Whole,” he said.

Veterans Support

Of the calls made since August 2022, 3,592 were made by veterans, a relatively high rate based on national standards, Summerville said.

Suicide with veterans is an issue Gov. Mark Gordon has specifically championed.

Summerville said Wyoning’s call center staff can also connect callers to more long term, local mental health resources.

Text And Chat

A separate request has been made by Gordon through his 2025/2026 biennial budget proposal that would provide $774,270 in additional money for what would make the call centers a $1.7 million program. The extra money would go toward adding text and chat support services to the state’s 988 centers.

Although texting with someone about suicidal ideations may seem impersonal or disconnected to some, texting is one of the most common forms of communicating for many younger people. Similarly, telehealth services have been growing nationwide.

“When dealing with any type of mental health or substance abuse disorder, it’s really important to meet the person where they’re at in a manner they’re comfortable with,” Summerville said.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter