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South Carolina’s Duplicative, Bureaucrat-Driven Approach To Suicide Prevention

Inside state government’s hostile takeover of ‘988’ program …

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In covering issues related to suicide, our news outlet encourages people questioning whether to take their own lives (or harm themselves) to stop … and seek help. Specifically, we recommend they reach out to a friend. In lieu of that, we encourage them to access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK.

Suicide prevention has gone mobile, too. Rather than remembering a clunky website address or a ten-digit number, all you have to do in the event you find yourself in a jam is call or text 988 (for more info, click here).

Launched last July, the 988 line has seen a massive influx of calls, texts, and chats over the intervening nine months – far eclipsing the volume of the Lifeline it is supplementing. In addition to being easier to access than the Lifeline, the service is also far more efficient in terms of connecting callers directly to trained counselors.

To support its launch, the 988 program has received more than $1 billion in federal funding – including $18 million which went to a state-of-the-art call center located off of Pelham Road in Greenville, S.C. Run by Mental Health America, the Greenville facility is the Palmetto State’s only 988 call center – and provides state leaders with a built-in, cost-effective solution to managing this function moving forward.

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Unfortunately, bureaucrats at the much-maligned S.C. Department of Mental Health (SCDMH) – including the agency’s deputy director, Deborah Blalock – seem intent on wresting this responsibility away from the nonprofit and placing it squarely under the auspices of state government.

Rather than providing a recurring funding stream to the Greenville call center – which is staffed with employees of the national nonprofit – SCDMH has been pushing lawmakers to spend up to $5 million on a new government-run 988 call center based in Charleston, S.C. In addition to this duplicative up-front expenditure, they would staff this center with full-time state employees – which is far more expensive than paying nonprofit workers on a contract basis.

SCDMH is seeking additional funding in the upcoming 2023-2024 state budget for its so-called “crisis teams” – units which are dispatched whenever suicide prevention counselors prove unable to resolve situations with callers.

“They make more money if they cannot resolve the situation and have to send in crisis teams,” one mental health advocate told me.

In other words, not only does the state want to undertake a hostile takeover of 988 … it is simultaneously seeking to incentivize a specific (costly) outcome for taxpayers.

“Their plan would not utilize existing resources or existing partnerships,” one lawmaker told me.

Senator Ross Turner and representative Bruce Bannister have been pushing to protect the Greenville call center - which is their job as local legislators. But this is much bigger than a regional political turf war. This is a definitional case of a government bureaucracy placing its own needs above the needs of the people it is supposed to be serving ... which sadly happens far too often in South Carolina.

No wonder the state budget has ballooned to a staggering $36.6 billion - yet positive outcomes for the poeple of the Palmetto State remain maddeningly elusive.

SCDMH isn't pushing its hostile takeover of 988 in a vacuum, incidentally. S.C. Senate finance committee chairman Harvey Peeler has introduced legislation which would dramatically restructure the Palmetto State’s health care bureaucracies - and agency leaders are reportedly eying this program as a "soft landing” for many of their employees.

"They are jockeying for position ahead of Harvey Peeler’s reform bill,” a lobbyist following the debate told me. "They are trying to find places for their people to land if Peeler’s bill passes.”

Given the growing demand for 988 services across the country, there very well may be a need for two call centers in South Carolina. But state leaders should not allow bureaucratic greed to drive such a decision - especially if that involves squandering existing resources and attempting to preordain the costliest outcomes.

Count on this news outlet to keep tabs on this situation ... and let our readers know which lawmakers are prioritizing the public interest versus the insatiable demands of the state’s ever-expanding bureaucratic state.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...

Will Folks on phone
Will Folks (Brett Flashnick)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.

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