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Senate Committees Advance Pair of Measures to Expand Access to Mental Health Services


TRENTON – Legislation that would require the Department of Human Services to establish a comprehensive statewide behavioral health crisis system of care, including implementation of a new 9-8-8 behavioral health crisis hotline and the establishment of mobile crisis response teams available to individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis, advanced out of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.


The bill, S-311, sponsored by Senator Joe Vitale and Senator Vin Gopal, comes in response to several actions taken at the federal level to establish a new 9-8-8 national suicide prevention hotline, and falls in line with other preventative measures being taken in other states. The new three-digit helpline will replace the longer National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) hotline currently in use.


A second and related bill, S-352, sponsored by Senator Gopal, that would require health insurance carriers to provide coverage for the treatment of mental health conditions and substance use disorders through collaborative care, was passed out of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.


“Tragically, too many of our friends, neighbors and loved ones continue to struggle with one kind of behavioral health crisis or another. Too often, these sufferers bear their anguish silently, and alone. By joining the nationwide effort to prevent suicide and other negative behavioral health outcomes, our state will be able to offer those suffering most a literal life line, and immediate help by dialing the 9-8-8 crisis center,” said Senator Vitale (D-Middlesex).


The legislation provides that, no later than six months after the effective date of the bill, the Commissioner of Human Services will be required to set up designated hotline centers that would have the authority to deploy mobile crisis response teams and refer callers to crisis stabilization services, as needed, according to guidelines and best practices established by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.


The system must assure that crisis counselors are in place to respond to calls for help 24 hours per day, seven days per week.


A hotline center would also meet the requirements set forth by NSPL for serving high risk and specialized populations as identified by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.


“Many residents who struggle with mental illness feel they have nowhere to turn. These include our military veterans, and more and more, our young people. Establishment of this 9-8-8 crisis service can be a life-saver not only for people considering taking their own life, but for those who might otherwise find themselves in a public crisis or difficulty that could turn into a tragic encounter with police,” said Senator Gopal (D-Monmouth). “This law is a positive step forward in seeing that those in behavioral health crisis can get the help they need quickly and safely.”


In October, 2020, President Trump signed the bipartisan National Suicide Designation Act of 2020 into law. That law established 9-8-8 as a universal number for mental health crises and suicide prevention.


The need for 9-8-8 and a continuum of crisis services is greater than ever. According to data the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in 2020, more than one in ten adults in the U.S. had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days prior to the survey and four in ten adults experienced a behavioral health condition, like anxiety or depression.


“Just as the 9-1-1 emergency line has emerged as an effective first response, and been ingrained in our societal memory, so too the 9-8-8 system will offer a similar immediate response in times of behavioral health crisis,” noted Senator Vitale.


The second bill, S-352, would require health insurance carriers to provide coverage for benefits provided through the collaborative care model in the treatment of mental health conditions and substance use disorders. The collaborative care model is an integration of psychiatric treatment and primary care to create a patient-centered experience and reduce fragmented care within the healthcare system.


This integrated form of care treats common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety that require systematic follow-up due to their persistent nature, as well as substance use disorders.


Bill S-311 was released from committee by a vote of 12-0, while S-352 was released by a vote of 8-0.