Politics & Government

NC suicide hotline will 'absolutely' be funded, top Republican says

Speaker Tim Moore, left, talks with leading House budget writers, Reps. Nelson Dollar and Linda Johnson during a House session Wednesday, August 5, 2015 at the Legislature Building.
Speaker Tim Moore, left, talks with leading House budget writers, Reps. Nelson Dollar and Linda Johnson during a House session Wednesday, August 5, 2015 at the Legislature Building. tlong@newsobserver.com

A call center that answers North Carolina's Suicide Prevention Lifeline will "absolutely" receive funding from the state government to continue operating, a top legislator said on Friday.

Mental health advocates were concerned for the suicide hotline's future after the federal government last year changed the way states are allowed to use mental health grants and state legislators failed to include funding in the budget they are poised to pass into law.

North Carolina's lifeline is part of a national program. People in NC who call a national lifeline number — 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-SUICIDE — are referred to a Greenville-based call center operated by the nonprofit Real Crisis Intervention.

On average, one person dies by suicide every six hours in North Carolina and the lifeline receives an average of 255 calls per day. The N.C. center needs $348,558 annually to pay its 28 workers.

State Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican, said he and other budget writers have identified funding for the program and plan to include it in a "technical corrections bill" by the end of the month. Federal funding for the North Carolina lifeline runs out July 1.

"We've identified a source of funds for the suicide hotline," Dollar said in an interview Friday afternoon.

There are "several" different ways the money can be allocated to the hotline, he said, declining to get into specifics. "The main thing is: it will absolutely be funded."

Dollar's comments come the same week that fashion icon Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died, reportedly by suicide.

His vow comes as welcome news to Dave Wickstrom, chairman of the N.C. Mental Health Block Grant Council and executive director of the Federal Center for Independent Living in Raleigh.

"We are thankful that Rep. Dollar has promised to fund such a needed service. which has and will continue to save countless lives," Wickstrom said.

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A change in policy

In previous years, North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services used federal mental health grants to fund the lifeline.

By law, the grants are reserved for adults with serious mental illness and children with serious emotional disturbances. According to Wickstrom and DHHS, the federal government last year tightened its interpretation of what qualifies for funding.

Now, the lifeline doesn't qualify for those federal funds because it can't guarantee that every caller has a serious mental illness or serious emotional disturbance, DHHS said in a statement.

About the budget

Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the state Legislature, were caught off guard last week after mental health advocates voiced concern for the program's future.

Dollar last week said legislators didn't mean to overlook the program. He and state Rep. Chuck McGrady of Hendersonville, another Republican budget writer, said last week that they weren't asked for lifeline funding prior to releasing their budget.

"One can’t fix something one doesn’t know anything about. Inexplicably, no one brought the suicide hotline issue up — neither lobbyists nor the NC Department of Health and Human Services," McGrady wrote in a blog post.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the Legislature's budget Wednesday, but lawmakers are expected to complete an override of the Democratic governor's veto next week.

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Specht: 919-829-4870 @AndySpecht
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