Montana State Capitol building

Montana State Capitol building

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

HELENA — The remaining bill intended to battle suicide in Montana was heavily amended Wednesday to broaden its scope and divide $1 million among multiple programs, although some legislators said it’s missing important policy.

Legislators in House Appropriations were up against a deadline last week and decided to move only one of three suicide prevention bills forward to the Senate and table the other two. Committee members said they hoped a working group could combine multiple pieces into one comprehensive bill, but some House legislators had spent years drafting their legislation and worried the final version wouldn’t include the best policy. At the end of last week, it was unclear who, if anyone, would lead a working group and who would have their input included.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, who is the sponsor of the remaining bill, introduced House Bill 118 to a Senate committee with five pages of amendments requested by Sen. Albert Olszewski, R-Kalispell. Olszewski was said to be in charge of leading a working group, but he said he didn’t expect a formal sit-down.

Both Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, and Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, had bills to address suicide prevention tabled last week. They were told by several legislators they likely wouldn’t be included in the working group, regardless of its formality.

Dunwell’s bill would have created a suicide grant prevention program in schools and require schools to have an evidence-based prevention plan. Dunwell said she was able to reach out to Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte, and make recommendations on which parts of her bill to include. The requirement of schools to have a prevention plan didn’t make the cut.

“It’s certainly a move forward,” she said. “I would argue we need a lot more.”

Dunwell’s bill would have created a special revenue account to establish a reliable funding source, but the amended version appropriates half the funds as one-time-only. She said $1 million isn’t enough to solve a problem and legislators will have to justify asking for more money in the next biennium.

“It’s not something you’re going to fix overnight,” she said. “We’re changing a culture of suicide in Montana that’s generational."

The amendment appropriates $1 million to three different prevention programs administered by the Department of Public Health and Human Services. A recurring $500,000 from the national Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies will go into a state special revenue account to fund a suicide grant prevention program, including for veterans. A one-time-only appropriation of $250,000 from the health and medicaid special revenue account will help DPHHS implement the action steps in the Montana Native American youth suicide reduction plan. The final $250,000 is also one-time-only and will provide grants for school-based prevention programs.

Karjala saw some important parts of her bill included but said she had to track down Olszewski during a brief recess to make recommendations. She said the inclusion of language to increase the knowledge of adverse childhood experiences, such as a child experiencing abuse, was crucial. She was disappointed to see its counterpart to provide trauma-based care wasn’t included, since 80 percent of suicides can be attributed to an experience of trauma, she said.

House Bill 118 also added language to make sure the programs implemented are evidence-based and requires communities receiving grants to report outcomes at the end of the biennium to DPHHS.

While Karjala and Dunwell said they were frustrated to see parts of their bills missing, Dee Brown, Republican chair of the Senate State Administration committee, said the bill included everyone’s work.

“Everyone is pulling on the same rope, and everyone is pulling in the same direction,” Brown said. “Everyone had part of their (bill) survive.”

Brown said the committee should move the bill forward and explained the amendments to the rest of the committee. Before voting, she said she supports the bill because it allows communities to approach suicide prevention with their own evidence-based strategy.

“It’s also addressing that one size doesn’t fit all,” she said. “Your community is different from my community is different from his community.”

The bill will move to the Senate floor for debate. 

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