CAPITAL CURRENTS: 1-800-SUICIDE
Betcha didn’t know that the FCC can take away your phone number and give it to someone else!
This is a strange, sad story of government bureaucracy at work.
On December 12, 2006, the head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, filed an emergency petition at the FCC. It seems that the organization that was using three toll-free phone numbers – 1-800-SUICIDE, 1-888-SUICIDE and 1-877-SUICIDA – had fallen behind in paying its phone bills. That organization, the Kristin Brooks Hope Center (KBHC), operates a suicide prevention hotline service. It routes callers to trained crisis counselors. The suicide hotlines are actually routing callers to hundreds of local suicide prevention organizations, based on the caller’s phone number. Non-profit KBHC began using these toll-free numbers eight or nine years ago, and obtained a trademark for 1-800-SUICIDE in 2003. As a non-profit organization, fundraising was an essential task for KBHC, and these toll-free numbers featured prominently in the fundraising material.
Previously, KBHC had received funding from SAMHSA, which ended in 2004. Meanwhile, SAMHSA set up a competing suicide hotline, 1-800-273-TALK. Then KBHC received funding from the National Mental Health Association, but that funding ended in 2006. At some point in 2006, KBHC fell behind in paying its phone bills, owing $41,000 at the beginning of August. In August 2006, the Secretary of Health and Human Services sent a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, alerting the FCC that the toll-free numbers might be disconnected and, if that were to happen, asking the FCC to reassign the numbers to SAMHSA. He said that if the 1-800-SUICIDE number were disconnected, unanswered calls would pose a risk to callers in crisis.
Without KBHC’s permission, the telephone carrier offering the toll-free service somehow took control of the numbers and might have threatened to disconnect them, although this is disputed. In late August, the carrier, now controlling the numbers, reached agreement with SAMHSA for SAMHSA to operate 1-800-SUICIDE. KBHC filed a complaint against the carrier at the FCC, and the carrier sued KBHC for breach of contract.
On December 12, SAMHSA filed an emergency petition with the FCC, asking that the numbers be reassigned to SAMHSA. SAMHSA claimed that the total call volume for the toll-free lines was approximately 30,000 per month, each one potentially representing a caller in crisis. It did not disclose the call volume of its competing hotline 1-800-273-TALK.
The very same day (!), the FCC issued a public notice calling for comments on the petition, with comments due in eight days. After a flurry of comments and replies, the FCC Wireline Bureau on January 22, 2007 ordered a one-year reassignment of the toll-free numbers to SAMHSA. The order said that telephone numbers are a “public resource” and neither carriers nor subscribers own their telephone numbers. Indeed, there is an FCC rule (47 C.F.R. 52.1111) saying that the FCC has authority to assign or reassign toll-free numbers. But there are only specific areas where the FCC staff can make decisions, and this isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, the FCC staff decided that the public interest in preserving access to the suicide prevention hotlines, by means of the reassignment, was justified in light of the financial dispute between KBHC and the carrier. The order says that it is an extraordinary emergency action in light of the life-threatening situation.
KBHC appealed the staff decision to the full Commission, but there has never been action on the appeal.
The reassignment was temporary, for one year. In November 2007, SAMHSA petitioned the FCC for a permanent reassignment. It said that it was currently routing calls to a Veterans Affairs crisis center, but that such routing would no longer be possible if SAMHSA lost control of the numbers. It said that KBHC’s “financial instability” posed a risk to public safety. Instead, the FCC extended the temporary reassignment for 90 days and asked for comments “to refresh the record.” KBHC then submitted a report on its financial situation, claiming that it is now financially secure and able to prepay carriers for a full year of service in advance. In April, the FCC extended the reassignment for another 90 days. And that’s where we are right now.
What a mess! And there is plenty of blame to go around. Non-payment disputes happen all the time. But was there really an emergency? What is different here is the strong arm tactics of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the FCC staff’s alacrity in reacting. Indeed, KBHC has filed Freedom of Information Act requests at both SAMHSA and the FCC, trying to find evidence that the two agencies cooked up everything in advance. I dunno. All I can do is shake my head.