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June 15, 2023

Increased phone fees would help Pa. fund 911, 988 call centers, lawmakers say

Two bills passed in the state House this week are hoping to provide sustainable funding for crisis helplines amid persistent staffing issues

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911 988 Call Center Bill Andrew Craft/USA TODAY NETWORK

Two bills that passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Wednesday would implement fees on phones and wireless devices in order to adequately fund 911 and 988 emergency call centers.

Two bills that passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Wednesday would implement fees on phones and other wireless devices to fund the state's 911 and 988 call centers. 

The bills were introduced separately by Reps. Jared Solomon and Stephen Kinsey, Democrats serving portions of Philadelphia. Solomon's bill would increase the flat-rate fee already implemented on each phone line to help fund the state's 911 communications services, while Kinsey's bill would institute a surcharge of 6 cents per line in order to provide "sustainable" funding for the 988 Suicide Prevention Lifeline in Pennsylvania. 

Each bill, which received support from all House Democrats and a handful of Republicans, would gradually adjust the fees based on inflation. They now head to the Republican-controlled Senate, where they will receive hearings ahead of a vote later this year. 

Pennsylvania has utilized a $1.65 fee on all phones and wireless devices since 2015. The flat-rate fee has never been adjusted for inflation, even as equipment and operations costs continue to rise, which Solomon said has created a growing problem for 911 dispatch centers and emergency departments. 

The rising costs have "crippled" 911 dispatch centers in Pennsylvania, leaving one in five operator jobs vacant, Jennifer Crass, director of emergency communications for Montgomery County, told CBS Philadelphia. The 911 dispatch center in Eagleville, Montgomery County is understaffed by 28 operators. 

A five-year audit conducted by state legislators found that Pennsylvania's 911 centers have struggled to fill operator vacancies, with only eight of the state's 61 call centers not experiencing any vacancies, The Meadville Tribune reported.

"Right now, our 911 system is operating off 1970s and '80s technology," Solomon told NBC Philadelphia. "We all know that the number one priority of government is to provide for the safety and security of our friends, neighbors and loved ones. Let's vote for this bill. Let's say yes to safer, more secure neighborhoods." 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline launched a three-digit suicide hotline across the country last summer. Calling 988 is meant to be as simple as dialing 911, connecting people in need to one of 200 crisis centers in the U.S. If those are backed up, callers are rerouted to a backup center to receive resources. 

Local crisis centers are better at connecting callers (and texters) to additional resources for treatment and support. Counselors are meant to be available 24/7 to discuss any issues related to mental health, substance abuse or suicidal crises. While not every community has its own call center, a quick search on the lifeline's website brings up Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral and Disability Services as the closest mental and behavioral health center in the region. 

Before 988 was rolled out, one in six calls to the longer National Suicide Prevention number ended before callers were able to reach a counselor. Sometimes callers are unable to reach local crisis centers because of facility or capacity issues and are then transferred to a national backup center. 

"With the ongoing mental health crisis affecting Pennsylvanians across the commonwealth, it's crucial we ensure such a critical resource in 988 is funded sustainably so they can be reliable to help folks suffering with their mental health," Kinsey said. "Today, we took a step toward strengthening and solidifying this lifeline that can help so many. I now urge my colleagues in the Senate to get this bill to the governor's desk so it can be signed into law." 

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House passed a separate measure that would cut monthly phone bills by making cell phones exempt from the 6% sales tax and 5% gross receipts tax. If passed by the Senate, Pennsylvanians could save an estimated $124 per year. Solomon told NBC10 that, if all three measures become law, residents may not see any increases to their bills until 2028.

Kinsey and Solomon both noted in their cosponsorship memos last month that their bills were introduced in line with Gov. Josh Shapiro's 2024 budget proposal, which calls for a $50 million investment in the state's 911 dispatch system and $36 million for firefighters and EMS providers. 

The push to fund 911 and 988 call centers in Pennsylvania comes as suicide and homicide rates among young Americans reached the highest they've been in decades, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide and homicide were the second and third leading causes of death for Americans between the ages 10-24 in 2021, which translates to 11 deaths for every 100,000 people that year.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please call or text the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

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