The state of 988: Can telecom complexities from new crisis hotline fees be solved?

It’s been six months since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deadline requiring telecommunications providers to direct all 988 calls, texts, and chats to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Today, the 988 hotline service is available through every landline, cell phone, and VoIP device in the U.S. to connect anyone experiencing a mental health, substance abuse, or suicidal crisis with trained crisis counselors. Those worried about a loved one in distress may also call for support.

Though most will agree the new service provides a lifesaving safety net, it’s also creating increased complexity for businesses that pay communications taxes. While some states are funding 988 from their general budgets, several others have passed legislation imposing regulatory fees similar to the method used to finance 911 calling.

This puts telecom businesses on the hook to figure out a way to calculate the new fees and pass along the costs to their customers. Many existing 911 ordinances are decades old and are written in a way that fails to clearly define how fees apply to new technology. 

Since most are typically “per-line” fees, the crux of the issue is over what constitutes a “line” these days. Will similar issues develop around 988 fees? The 988 hotline’s creation opens the door for new city, county, and state laws that may or may not help telecom providers determine how 988 fees should be calculated. 

After collecting the fees, providers need to file tax returns and remit payments to the appropriate government jurisdictions.

State suicide and crisis lifeline legislation and 988 fees

Here’s how the FCC’s new requirement is playing out in some states:

California amended its 911 statutes to include a new, monthly 8-cent 988 surcharge on each access line beginning January 1, 2023. The bill allows, but doesn’t require, the 988 and 30-cent 911 surcharges to be combined into a single line item. For 2025 and beyond, the 988 fee is capped at 30 cents per line. 

Colorado established a monthly 988 surcharge capped at 30 cents per line. Starting January 1, 2023, the 988 fee increases from 18 cents to 27 cents per line. More details are available from the Colorado Department of Revenue.

A children’s mental health omnibus bill in Connecticut created a 988 trust fund. The proposed law originally included a 988 fee capped at 75 cents, but it was later removed via an amendment. As of now, the state has no 988 fee.

Nevada passed 988 hotline legislation in 2021 allowing a surcharge capped at 35 cents per line per month. The state is still working with telecommunication companies to develop regulations to implement the fee.

New Jersey introduced a bill last year that would implement an unspecified 988 fee but the legislation hasn’t advanced.

In March 2021, Virginia became the first state to pass legislation implementing 988 fees to create and administer a crisis call center. Unlike other states, Virginia set different 988 surcharge rates for wireless (12 cents per line) and prepaid wireless (8 cents per line) effective July 1, 2021. The bill also increased 911 fees.

Washington’s 988 fee moves up from 24 cents to 40 cents per radio access line effective January 1, 2023, based on 2021 legislation.

Several other states either introduced bills that didn’t pass or that are inactive. 

Canada to roll out 988 suicide prevention hotline in 2023

Discussions about implementing new fees are also occurring in Canada, where 988 calling and texting will be available starting at the end of November 2023. In the meantime, Canadians can access Talk Suicide Canada by calling 1-833-456-4566. Residents of Quebec can call 1-866-277-3553 or visit suicide.ca.

True cost of 988 hotline may still be unknown

It’s possible that jurisdictions don’t yet have a solid feel for what it will cost to implement 988 services. Surcharges are all over the map, figuratively and literally. 

As more data becomes available and mental health advocates lobby states to include additional services beyond the hotline in their legislation, we might see 988 fees creep up on par with comparatively expensive 911 fees. It’s too soon to tell.

Avalara makes compliance easier

Tracking 988 legislation and keeping up with changing requirements requires a good deal of effort. If you’re wondering how your telecom business will comply with 988 laws, talk to an expert about how Avalara for Communications can help streamline collection and remittance of taxes and fees.

For more on this topic, read our blog post FCC authorizes states to levy suicide prevention 988 hotline fees on voice providers.

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