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August 14, 2023

Lawmakers pushing for override of suicide prevention budget veto

A large brick building with columns and a large gold dome on top sits behind a gate with steps leading up to it. Photo | Flickr | Ajay Suresh The Massachusetts State House

Lawmakers who championed state support for a suicide prevention program for young people are lobbying their colleagues to restore funding that Gov. Maura Healey slashed from the fiscal 2024 budget, calling the governor's cut "needlessly cruel" and its impact "unnerving."

Hey Sam, a texting service for people ages 15-24 grappling with loneliness, depression or suicidal feelings, was slated to receive $1 million from the compromise budget the Legislature sent to Healey. The $1 million was part of a broader $1.8 million allocation for Samaritans, Inc., which provides suicide prevention services across the state.

But Healey moved to strike the Hey Sam money from the $56 billion budget she signed into law this week, saying the reduction would make the program's funding consistent with her original budget proposal.

Rep. Ted Philips, who co-hosted a legislative briefing with Sen. Becca Rausch earlier this year to spotlight the success Hey Sam has had tackling youth mental health crises and appealing for continued state funding, has urged the House's budget chief to recommend an override of Healey's line item veto once formal sessions resume in the fall.

"This cut is needlessly cruel at a time when student mental health resources need all the funding that it can get," Philips wrote in a letter, which was shared with the News Service, to House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz on Wednesday. "I am truly grateful for your efforts to fund 4513-1027 (Samaritans) at $1.8M in the conference committee budget that we sent to the Governor's Desk, and I hope that you will continue to support that number by recommending that the House override this ill-conceived veto in the near future."

Nearly 1,700 young people have used Hey Sam by texting 439-726 since it launched in March 2022, according to the Samaritans' website.

The program has a 100 percent success rate at de-escalating conversations among people expressing a high risk of suicide and not involving emergency services, said Kathy Marchi, CEO and president of Samaritans, Inc. The young people receive help from their peers, who use a language, tone and style they can relate to, Marchi said.

Marchi said she's not sure what the future of Hey Sam will look like without the state funding, though Samaritans may need to cut back on operating hours, volunteer and staffing levels, and initiatives aimed at promoting awareness of the suicide prevention tool. But Hey Sam isn't shutting down, Marchi told the News Service on Friday.

"What we feel is we've got some traction, we've had success, but we believe the program has yet to see its biggest day. There's much growth ahead of us," Marchi said. "One way or another we've got to figure this out."

In a veto document explaining the reduction of funds by $1.4 million to Samaritans, Healey wrote that the goals of the program are "sufficiently funded through an expansion in the Suicide Prevention and Intervention" line item. That line item includes more than $8 million to implement a statewide suicide prevention plan, with some funds directed to address elder suicide behavior and for a crisis hotline serving veterans and concerned family members, according to the budget.

The line item also carves out at least $1 million for implementing 988 suicide and crisis call centers, an investment that Administration and Finance Secretary Matt Gorzkowicz highlighted at the budget signing ceremony Wednesday. Maintaining the full recommended funding for Samaritans would have been "a bit redundant" and "duplicative" in light of the other mental health programs included in the budget, Gorzkowicz signaled as he explained the governor's Hey Sam veto.

The federal government requires that Massachusetts operate the 988 hotline, which an administration official said provides mental health support for people of all ages 24/7. The parallel options could create confusion, the official said.

"The Healey-Driscoll Administration is committed to ensuring that Massachusetts residents, especially young people, can access mental health support when they need it," Karissa Hand, a spokesperson for Healey, said in a statement to the News Service. "We're proud to continue to support the 988 hotline and its providers, including Samaritans, which offer 24/7 phone and text support for people experiencing mental health challenges."

Samaritan receives state funding to serve as a 988 provider, and it will also receive $400,000 remaining from the line item that Healey vetoed, the administration official said.

Marchi said the governor's veto may stem from a lack of understanding or misinformation about the differences between Hey Sam and 988.

For now, Marchi said, the texting option for 988 is not staffed by people based in Massachusetts, which could limit their ability to make referrals to local services. The volunteers are also likely not the same age as the young people reaching out for help, unlike on Hey Sam, she indicated.

"I really do hope that this is a matter of educating and sharing more information, clarifying, so that it feels like this is certainly an override request that can be well supported," Marchi said.

Rausch worked with Samaritans to develop the pilot program for Hey Sam during the COVID-19 pandemic. She argued the premise of Hey Sam, which operates as a peer-to-peer texting initiative, is "entirely distinct" from 988, which the Needham Democrat said is also "very important" in providing mental health services.

Rausch said it's "unnerving" to think about the "destruction or dismantling" of a service that's "proven effective at helping young people and saving lives."

"The budget isn't over. We've overridden gubernatorial vetoes in the past," Rausch said in an interview, voicing hope that she and her colleagues will override this veto from Healey, too. "We are in an ongoing mental health crisis that disproportionately affects youth."

Samaritans received $1.4 million in fiscal 2023 to fully implement Hey Sam, which Rausch said has helped Bay Staters stay anonymous while accessing confidential care from volunteers their age. The latest budget boost would have expanded operating hours for the service, she said.

"Hey Sam saves lives -- period," Rausch said. "I don't know how they're going to run without the money."

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