Politics & Government

Suicide hotline funding excluded from NC budget proposal, but they're working on it

Sen. Harry Brown, the Senate’s chief budget writer, in 2014
Sen. Harry Brown, the Senate’s chief budget writer, in 2014 cseward@newsobserver.com

One person dies by suicide every six hours in North Carolina and, since 2012, the state has had a hotline service that offers help to people in emotional distress.

But if the service doesn't receive funding soon, it could shut down.

The federal government last year changed the way the state is allowed to fund North Carolina’s Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which receives an average of 255 calls per day, and the state spending plan released by Republican legislators earlier this week doesn't offer replacement funding.

The service would be forced to shut down July 1 if it doesn't receive funding before then, said Rob Thompson, deputy director of NC Child, a nonprofit that advocates for children. People who call a national lifeline number — 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-SUICIDE — are referred to a North Carolina call center operated by Real Crisis Intervention, a nonprofit in Greenville. The N.C. center needs $348,558 annually to pay its 28 workers.

"If we lose the money, callers will go to a national line. If it’s referred to national line, callers won’t be connected to N.C.-specific resources, like mobile crisis, 911 or (mental healthcare providers)," Thompson said in an interview.

The longer legislators go without fixing the issue, the more likely it is some people will think the state doesn't care about helping those in dire situations, said Dave Wickstrom, chairman of the N.C. Mental Health Block Grant Council and executive director of the Federal Center for Independent Living in Raleigh.

"It was not only a reckless error, but if not corrected, will cost more adults and children in North Carolina their lives," Wickstrom said.

Mary Smith, executive director of Real Crisis Intervention, said she learned of the funding situation in the news.

“I hope it’s an oversight," Smith said. "I can’t imagine someone saying we’re going to redline this.”

A fix forthcoming

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services was notified by the federal government in October that it couldn't use what are known as "mental health block grants" to fund the telephone service, Thompson and Wickstrom said.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar of Cary, a key Republican budget writer, said on Thursday that legislators are working to provide funding for the service.

"It is certainly the state's intent to make sure we continue the suicide hotline. Our central staff has already been directed to find the best funding options and I have every confidence this issue will be worked out," Dollar said in a phone interview.

The lack of funding wasn't intentional, he added. "There are so many moving pieces, we certainly didn't get the list of items that the DHHS wanted until very late in the process, so that made it difficult" to catch everything, Dollar said.

He then questioned the federal government's change in grant policy, saying "I don't understand what the rationale for that is at the federal level."

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No amendments allowed

Republicans hold a supermajority in the N.C. General Assembly and have written the budget proposal mostly without Democratic lawmakers.

Ford Porter, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, suggested funding might have been included in the GOP-crafted budget if Republicans allowed amendments to the proposal. Democrats (including Cooper) have criticized Republican leaders for barring changes to their plan.

"The failure to include funding for the suicide prevention hotline shows the real and troubling consequences of shutting the public out of the budget process," Porter said. "Republican leaders should quit trying to ram through this special interest budget, listen to the people who are affected by their budget and make sure North Carolinians get the support they need."

Cooper included the funding in his budget, Porter noted.

State Sen. Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County said the budget oversight is "exactly the kind of mistake that you'd expect from a budget that was written in private by a small group of people and excluded from public view until the last possible moment."

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Specht: 919-829-4870 @AndySpecht
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