Senator wants to see plan before funding increase for suicide prevention

Carl Crabtree skeptical that more money will solve problems

By WILLIAM L. SPENCE of the Tribune

BOISE — The Department of Health and Welfare’s request for another $1 million in suicide prevention funding prompted some skepticism from one north central Idaho lawmaker Monday.

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, said he fully understands the significance of Idaho’s suicide problem and supports efforts to tackle the issue. Nevertheless, he wants the department to demonstrate it has an effective plan in place before the Legislature appropriates more money.

“You’re asking for double the money,” he told Public Health Services Division Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch during her presentation to the joint budget committee. “We recognize the seriousness of this problem, but we also want to make sure we spend money wisely and have accountability.”

Idaho ranked fifth in the nation for per capita suicide rate in 2017. It is the second-leading cause of death for men between the ages of 15 and 44.

Given such statistics, Crabtree worried about the apparent lack of communication and coordination between the state’s suicide prevention organizations.

To address that concern, he and other lawmakers added language to the public health budget last year requiring the division to update the state’s suicide prevention plan. The language specifically directed the agency to develop the plan “in full collaboration with various stakeholders,” including the Council on Suicide Prevention, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, veteran service organizations, the Idaho Department of Education and Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Shaw-Tulloch acknowledged that the groups hadn’t always worked in lock-step.

“The biggest lesson from last year was the value of partnerships and cooperation,” she said.

Prompted by the legislative mandate, more than 40 state, regional and local stakeholders came together to work on the new state plan, which was completed in August. It’s not yet available online, Shaw-Tulloch said, but it reflects best practices from around the nation.

The five-year plan “has 12 goals and more than 60 objectives,” she said. “We then created a one-year priority action plan, which formed the basis of (this year’s) budget request. The budget intent language gave us the opportunity to create that shared mission.”

Crabtree appreciated the effort, but he still wants to see some results before the Legislature hands over another $1 million.

“That’s what people criticize government for all the time,” he said after the presentation. “An agency couldn’t get the job done with 10 people, so they ask for 20 people. Throwing good money after bad isn’t what we’re here for.”

With an updated plan and goals in place, Crabtree said, the division should be able to boost outcomes with its existing, $1.3 million in prevention funding.

“If they can do that, I’ll be their strongest advocate,” he said.

Gov. Brad Little supported the division’s fiscal 2020 funding request. If the Legislature balks at the additional $1 million, Shaw-Tulloch said, the division may have to re-prioritize, but it wouldn’t be derailed.

“We’re working in such lock-step with our partners now, I’d want to go back to them and ask what our priority should be,” she said.

Should existing funds, for example, be used to complete a “gap analysis” that highlights the type of prevention services available in different communities and what’s missing? Or should the focus be on expanding capacity at the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, which last year received more than 13,000 calls?

The $1 million in added funding would allow both options to be pursued, Shaw-Tulloch said. It also would provide $315,000 for additional statewide training, plus $302,500 for two “Zero Suicide” pilot programs designed to keep suicidal individuals from falling through cracks in the health care system.

“We’re asking for an additional $1.02 million in general funds to tackle this complex issue in a way that fulfills our vision of eliminating suicide in Idaho and reaching our goal of reducing suicide by 20 percent by 2025,” she told the budget committee. “I feel like we have a really strong effort moving forward, and a lot of commitment. A lot of people are anxiously awaiting your approval of this budget request.”

Crabtree isn’t the only lawmaker she’ll have to convince, though.

Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, serves on the Idaho Council on Suicide Prevention and helped update the state prevention plan. She also serves on the budget committee.

“It may be a timing issue,” she said. “(The division) is asking for all this added money at once, but can they implement the programs all at once? I don’t know. So I’m with Carl. I’m not sure now is the time to fully fund the strategic plan — even though I’m very supportive of what they want the money for.”

The budget committee will begin setting agency budgets in mid-February.