Q&A: How Will California's New 988 Mental Health Line Actually Work?

6 min read
fairly easy
California Assembly member Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, who authored legislation to create and fund the state's new 988 phone line for mental health emergencies, spoke with KHN about the effort and what mo…
NEED HELP? If you or someone you know is in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

In September 2020, Congress passed bipartisan legislation creating a three-digit national suicide hotline: 988. Think of it as an alternative to 911 for mental health emergencies.

The system is intended to make it easier to seek immediate help during a mental health crisis. Instead of calling 911 or the 10-digit national suicide hotline, Americans theoretically will be able to speak to a trained counselor by calling 988 from most any phone line.

The federal law allows states to raise funds for the effort by levying a surcharge on monthly bills for mobile and landline phone service. The money can be used to support the dedicated call centers, pay for trained mobile response teams to be dispatched instead of armed law enforcement officers, and bolster stabilization services for people in crisis.

States are required to have some version of the 988 system up and running by July 2022. But the actual shape it takes is up to each state.

In California, the state Department of Health Care Services announced in September it would spend $20 million to help launch the 988 system. AB 988 is legislation that would tack on up to 80 cents a month on phone lines in the state — both wireless and landline services — to provide ongoing funding for the system and associated services. The bill has faced opposition from the telecommunications industry, which argues the fee should be capped at 10 cents and fund only the cost of routing 988 calls to an appropriate crisis center. The bill has passed the Assembly and is expected to be taken up by the Senate next year.

Assembly member Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, an Orinda Democrat, is the principal author of AB 988, which she called the "Miles Hall Lifeline Act" in honor of a 23-year-old man who was fatally shot by police in Walnut Creek during a mental…
Jenny Gold
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