“And so if you show up in a crisis, and you have a gun, and physical restraints have been your training, you’re more likely to go in that direction than in the actual engaging and redirecting,” said Johnson, whose call center is going to field calls as part of the 988 network. “And so, I’m so excited that we will have a much higher degree of mental health intervention, because of contacting 988.”
The new law also will ensure crisis call centers have better technology, such as computer systems that allow them to see in real time where mental health treatment beds are available around the state. New GPS tracking for the mobile crisis teams will allow the call centers to more efficiently dispatch those teams to people who need in-person help.
People who don’t want to call the 988 line on the phone will also be able to access it through texting or online chats, which can be a more discreet way to seek help for oneself or a loved one. Those text and chat options are often more appealing to young people, Johnson said.
To pay for all of these things, HB 1477 will impose a 24-cent tax on phone lines, including cell and internet phone lines, starting in October. The tax will go up to 40 cents per line monthly starting in January 2023. Once fully phased in, the tax is expected to raise about $120 million every two years.
Leaders of the state’s crisis call centers say the money from the tax will ensure they can hire enough staff to handle a projected increase in call volume, once the 988 system is up and running next year.
The additional money will also allow crisis call centers to employ dedicated follow-up teams, so there’s less danger of people falling through the cracks of the system after they hang up the phone, said Patricia Morris, senior director of behavioral health at Volunteers of America of Western Washington. Morris’ organization, which handles crisis calls from eight Washington counties, will be another of the designated call centers under the 988 system.
“To actually have a dedicated team to be able to do follow up I think is going to be an opportunity to close gaps,” Morris said last week.
That means that, in addition to referring someone to a community resource or treatment program, “We will actually let them know, ‘Is it OK if we give you a call back in a week?’ Just to see how those individuals settled in.”
“Right now, we don’t have adequate staffing to be able to do that,” Morris said.
The bill will also require health insurance companies to ensure there are next-day appointments available for people who need help quickly, so that people don’t have to wait days or weeks for a medical appointment to address urgent mental health concerns.
Taken together, “This has the opportunity to be one of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my career as far as really enhancing and expanding services to people in crisis,” said Orwall, who started her career as a social worker in the early 1990s.
Some Republican lawmakers, who are in the minority in Washington’s Legislature, expressed concern about increasing the tax on phone lines, saying it was part of a pattern of higher taxes being implemented this year by Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office.
State Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, said he probably wouldn’t have a major problem with the 988 tax measure if it were passed in isolation, “but in addition to this bill, we have a dozen other taxes we are levying against people across the state.”
“… It still remains another tax on cellphone users,” Wagoner said during a Senate floor debate in April.
Dairi, meanwhile, sees this year’s bill as an important first step toward improving behavioral health services throughout the state.
He said he will continue to push for more treatment options so that people like Holly aren’t forced to languish in emergency rooms when they’re at their most vulnerable. Lawmakers, too, see a need to further expand treatment options; the new 988 bill creates a committee to identify gaps in the state’s behavioral health response services and recommend fixes.
Dairi described his late wife as a passionate advocate for social justice issues — one who not only joined the front lines of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, but also fought to advance equity and inclusion policies at Nordstrom, where she worked in the buying department.
He said his advocacy for more mental health resources at the state level is his way of carrying on Holly’s legacy.
“This is her work — this is not me,” Dairi, 32, said last week.
“As painful as this story is, and as much of a secret as she kept all of this throughout her life, I know this is something she would have wanted. … She would want this to make a difference, because that was who she was.”