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Shift in state crisis-text contractors means end for Txt4Life

Crisis Text Line, a national nonprofit with strong corporate backing, offered to extend its services to Minnesota free of charge.

An outside observer might say that it looked as though things were already headed in that direction, but Matt Eastwood, CEO of Canvas Health, said that he was surprised when he heard that the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) had hired a new contractor to run the state’s crisis text service. His organization had run the suicide prevention service, known as Txt4Life, since September 2011. With a new contractor in place, Canvas Health’s contract with the state will expire March 31.

The shift “was totally unexpected,” Eastwood said. “We were informed sometime last spring or summer that the state would be putting Txt4Life out for bid. We said we were happy to go out and compete.”

Eastwood said that his organization waited for DHS to put out a formal request for proposals (RFP) for Txt4Life. 

“Toward the end of 2017, we reached out to the contract manager at DHS and said, ‘Our contract is done December 31. There is no RFP. Unless you are planning to give this to us or re-contract, we are done as of December 31,’ ” he recalled. The contract manager assured him that the RFP was coming, he said, but asked to extend Canvas Health’s contract until the end of March.

In early January, Eastwood said he ran into Assistant DHS Commissioner Claire Wilson at a meeting. “She said,” he recalled, “ ‘I need to talk to you about Txt4Life.’ ” On Jan. 15, Eastwood said he contacted Wilson. The two set up a meeting for early the next morning.

“At 7 a.m. on the 16th she informed me that the state had entered into a contract with Crisis Text Line out of New York,” he said. “Our contract would end as of March 31.”

Changes frees funds

The decision to end the state’s contract with Canvas Health was a smart financial move, Wilson said. Crisis Text Line, a national nonprofit with strong corporate backing, offered to extend its services to Minnesota free of charge.

“Crisis Text Line is an organization that is supported by various funding streams,” Wilson said. “That allows it provide this service free nationwide.”

Claire Wilson
Photo by Jeff Achen
Claire Wilson

The transition will be seamless, according to Wilson. Crisis Text Line will take over the service as of April 1: “There won’t be a gap in access to this service,” she said.  

The fact that Crisis Text Line’s services will come at no additional cost means that DHS will instead be able to use the $1.125 million that the state Legislature appropriated last session for a crisis text service to beef up regional coordination for statewide suicide prevention efforts, Wilson said. “Within the contract that we currently have, we were only able to reach 54 counties in the state.”

Once Minnesota has entered into contract with Crisis Text Line, she added, those funds are freed up: “The full appropriation can then go to outreach services.” 

Outreach services, Wilson explained, are statewide suicide prevention education and awareness efforts. The appropriated money will be used to hire coordinators and outreach workers who will attend community meetings, speak at schools, in businesses and religious organizations. They will also help maintain local resources in a national database for Crisis Text Line counselors to access.

Organizations interested in providing these services are encouraged to submit proposals to the state.

“These funds are going to be used to expand outreach and education resources across the Minnesota,” Wilson said. “A wide range of agencies, including Canvas Health, can propose to offer outreach services.”

On many levels, the partnership with Crisis Text Line is a positive move for Minnesota, Wilson said.

“I don’t see any downside to this switch. The upside is that more people will have access to a lifesaving service, and we’ll have the potential to have much more expanded outreach services. We will be able to educate in all counties of the state about the service.” The new partnership feels like a great opportunity, she said: “We are able to expand our suicide prevention and crisis texting services to cover all of Minnesota, 24 hours a day, day 7 days a week. There is no downside to that.”

Impact of change

Though Wilson says that Canvas Health and Txt4Life did not provide crisis text services to the whole state, Eastwood disagrees. “We’ve been providing crisis text services to 100 percent of the state of Minnesota for many years,” he said. “We’ve never blocked any calls from anywhere or from anyone who texts us. When Txt4Life’s number is entered, no matter where it comes from, it gets a response from our call center in Richfield.” He also disputes Wilson’s claim that this move will save the state money.

“They aren’t saving a dime; they are using the money in a different way,” Eastwood said. “My understanding is that the dollars were allocated by the Legislature to support a crisis text service. I’m assuming DHS’ point is they are able to leverage these state dollars to get full coverage with regional coordinators. There was not enough money in the dollars allocated by the state to run a text center — and to hire enough regional coordinators to cover the whole state of Minnesota.”

Matt Eastwood
Matt Eastwood

Even if he disagrees about the details, Eastwood does believe that the decision to end the Canvas Health contract must be financially motivated. His organization had no indication that DHS was displeased with their work. “I think we ran the service very well,” he said. “We provided the citizens of the state of Minnesota with excellent service on behalf of DHS. I’m unaware of any actual complaints.”

The discontinuation of the state contact means that all of Canvas Health’s text center counselors will have their positions eliminated. “There are about 12 to 15 people who will be directly impacted,” Eastwood said.  

Eastwood admits that if he looks at the situation from a dispassionate angle, he can see why DHS made this decision. “If everything were equal I can understand this move from their perspective,” he said. “They don’t think they can get any more money out of the Legislature for this service. They think they can leverage a free service.” But was the move shortsighted? he asked: “The question is, ‘Will they get the same level of service and safety for Minnesota residents from a national crisis text line as they can from Txt4Life staff?’ ”

Because they are locally based, Eastwood argues, his staff understands local services and communication styles. Counselors based in other parts of the country may not understand the way things work in Minnesota. But he hopes his worries are proven wrong.

“We’re a community mental health service,” Eastwood said. “The stakes are too high for anyone in the agency to wish it goes poorly. I hope this goes exactly as the state thinks it will. If it doesn’t, people are going to get hurt. And that would be criminal.”

Beginning April 1, Crisis Text Line will become the state’s sole provider for crisis text services. People seeking suicide prevention text services should text “MN” to 741741. Texters will be connected with a trained counselor who will help defuse the crisis and connect the individual to local resources.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Allyson Hayward on 01/30/2018 - 02:00 pm.

    Solving a problem we don’t have…

    How much research was done into the national crisis texting program before the decision was made to switch? Is their product really so much better than what we’ve had with Canvas? If Text4Life was covering all of Minnesota even though they weren’t being paid to do so, we were getting much more value than we were paying for.

    The issue raised about texts being answered by people in other parts of the country is concerning, but a bigger red flag is this: The larger the program, the easier it is to feel a lack of commitment to the problem (suicidal kids, usually) because “someone else will deal with it.” How long does a texter have wait before someone responds? What do people who have used the national service have to say about it?

    The State’s decision doesn’t actually help them save money, since they now have to pay coordinators to act as go-betweens for this national service and local resources. They didn’t need these with Text4Life because Canvas knows has good relationships built with them already.

    • Submitted by Donelle Omer on 03/30/2018 - 08:09 pm.

      We kinda do, tho…

      Those are very valid and well-thought concerns. There are many volunteer Crisis Counselors for Crisis Text Line right here in Minnesota. I volunteered for Crisis Text Line 2015-2016, and briefly in 2017. I hope to refresh and volunteer again soon.

      From what it sounds like, the money that the state will be saving by not having to pay the national service will stay here in the state and can be appropriated for more outreach which means more awareness. It seemed to me that the way Text4Life was marketed their service, it was only available in certain areas. With that, people in the areas that it appeared unavailable in may not have been reaching out to them because of that perception. Instead of paying for service, now the state can focus on getting the word out.

      The CTL website has a link to the monthly newsletter where you can find information on conversation quality and any other specifics regarding how their partnerships work. The data collected can help more people, as well. I do realize that I’m responding to an old comment on an old article so maybe by now you’ve been able to check things out. If you haven’t, I would highly recommend going directly to http://www.crisistextline.org and browsing around.

      You have great communication skills and it sounds like you care for the emotional well-being of your community. Crisis Text Line values those qualities. They have new training cohorts for Crisis Counselors quite often and the application to volunteer is on their website, as well.

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