The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act (HR 4194) would designate a three-digit phone number, 988, as the national hotline for suicide and mental health. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Veterans Crisis Line would oversee operations of the national hotline. Currently, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the Veterans Crisis Line can be reached by entering the extension code “1”.
In 2018, Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act (Public Law 115-233), which was originally introduced by Representative Chris Stewart (R-UT-2) and met with overwhelming support. This 2018 Act required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider a 3-digit number for the suicide prevention lifeline. The current Bill is a follow-up to the Improvement Act, with the FCC having concluded its study, choosing 988 as the new number due to its similarity to the emergency number 911. On December 12th, 2019, the FCC voted unanimously to approve the proposal; one day prior, the companion Senate bill (S 2661, 116th Congress) was unanimously approved by the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The Lifeline operates 24/7 through a network of over 150 local crisis centers, each with accredited and trained mental health counselors. Calling the Lifeline is free of charge, and there are additional options for callers who speak Spanish, are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, served in the military, or are in a natural disaster. In addition to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, there are a number of state-specific hotlines.
The Communications Act of 1934 established the FCC, which now regulates phone, radio, television, wire, and satellite services. The FCC has the authority to designate three-digit phone numbers for special public use, such as for emergencies and information services (i.e., 911 and 411).
The Bill would not prevent internet or mobile service providers from charging for these calls, although the charges for calling this hotline cannot exceed the charges for other calls in the same class. The Lifeline is currently a toll-free number, meaning that there are no fees charged to the caller except for the use of airtime minutes on the caller’s mobile service plan.
Within 180 days of the enactment of this Bill, the FCC would need to submit a report on the feasibility and cost of including an automatic dispatchable location for the hotline. This means that the hotline would be able to identify the street address of the caller, akin to how the 911 emergency line identifies caller locations.
Within one year after enactment of this Bill, the FCC would need to submit a report on the precise charges collected relating to calls to the hotline. This report would include fees and other expenditures related to the hotline.
These reports would be submitted to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the Committee on Appropriations in the Senate, and to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and Committee on Appropriations in the House of Representatives.