The New Law on Counselor Regulation-How it Does and Doesn't Affect You

As many of you know there has been a two-year process in Olympia to reform the law on counselor regulation. Last year Washington Professional Counselors Association (WaProCA), an organization representing Registered Counselors in private practice, worked hard to stop a bill that would have simply eliminated the Registered Counselor credential and allowed no way forward for non-licensed counselors. It would also have eliminated legal protection for their clients. Fortunately we succeeded in stopping it!

That legislation proposed last year was based on the recommendations of a task force that excluded Registered Counselors in private practice, the group which would have been most affected. If it had passed, thousands of counselors would have been put out of business and over a hundred thousand clients would have lost services.

After the 2007 legislative session, a new Department of Health (DOH) work group on Registered Counselors was formed and three WaProCA members were included. Along with the work group, the state funded a statistically valid survey which finally gave us accurate information about the education and experience of Registered Counselors. Contrary to the negative profile in the press, the survey showed that half of all Registered Counselors have advanced degrees and another quarter have 4-year college degrees.

The work group formulated recommendations for legislation that was proposed in the 2008 session. This time we were able to pass a bill that raises standards, protects consumers, and also safeguards the availability of services. On March 25 Governor Gregoire signed that bill into law, abolishing the Registered Counselor credential and creating a new credential of Certified Counselor.


The importance of alternatives to licensed mental health services:

A great deal of the brilliance, creativity, and innovation in counseling, personal growth, holistic healing of mind/feeling/body/spirit has traditionally come from sources outside of academia. It is typical that only years later these forms of counseling become integrated into academic programs. We were fighting to preserve a place for all these valid approaches to human consciousness that are not now licensed. Currently this includes Transpersonal Psychology, most of the body-centered psychotherapies, Hakomi, Somatic Experiencing, Bio-Energetics, Voice Dialogue, EMDR, Thought Field Therapy, Lifespan Integration, and many other important approaches to personal growth and mental wellness.

Another important aspect is a national trend that on the one hand promotes very short term approaches to personal growth and on the other hand tends to pathologize and increasingly medicate life's ordinary stresses. We were committed to ensuring a legitimate place for counseling that is rooted in presence, connection, and honoring each person's innate wisdom.

Non licensed counselors also provide essential services to those who cannot afford the cost of licensed care and provide a sanctuary for to those who cannot afford to have a mental health diagnosis on their record. Many in the military, first-responders and medical fields often do not seek counseling for fear of a diagnostic code that could ruin a career or any possibility for promotion. The non-licensed category is a much needed safe-haven and resource for these individuals and their families in times of crisis.


Who is affected by the new law and how?

While there's no genuine "grandfathering" possibility provided in this bill, there is a consideration for counselors who have been registered for 5 or more years without unresolved actionable complaints. If you fall into this category, you will be able to take required classes in ethics, risk assessment and referral and WA State law regarding counselors and then pass a test on these subjects in order to become a Certified Counselor. Once certified, you will be required to have a written consultation agreement with a licensed mental health counselor.

For those with less than 5 years registration, there will be an educational entry requirement of a bachelor's degree in a counseling related field. This group will also need to take the requisite classes outlined above, pass the test, and have a supervisory relationship with a DOH qualified supervisor. While this creates an additional cost for practice, the required supervision hours will be lower than for licensure, and the cost will be far more affordable than a master's degree and licensure! There is also an option to become a Certified Advisor with a more limited scope of practice if you have an AA degree in a counseling related field.

In an odd twist of the political process, it seems that those representing counselors who are in the process of becoming licensed failed to provide a way for these professionals to complete their supervision hours while in private practice. Not to worry, though, as these counselors will more than qualify to become Certified Counselors (having completed their master's degree) until they complete the licensing process.


What is a Certified Counselor's scope of practice?

Under the new law a Certified Counselor will be able to "counsel and guide a client in adjusting to life situations, developing new skills, and making desired changes" as long as the client scores 61 and above on the Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) Scale.

Certified Counselors will not be allowed to diagnose and treat the mentally ill, and will therefore not be reimbursable through insurance. They must refer clients to licensed medical or mental health professionals for treatment of problems that fall at 60 or below on the GAF Scale, but can continue working with the client as part of a treatment plan approved by the client's licensed provider. A Certified counselor can also continue to work with a client who states in writing that they do not want licensed medical or mental health treatment as long as the client is not seriously mentally ill (does not have a GAF score lower than 50).

In Washington State Registered Counselors have included everyone from counselors who help people with the emotional issues around quitting smoking, exercising and losing weight to Jungian analysts. Jungian analysts complete their own lengthy advanced training process and should not have to complete another degree in a different field in order to practice. On the other end of the spectrum, it seems obvious that a counselor helping people quit smoking should not have to invest in a master's degree that would train them to treat the mentally ill. What all these counselors have in common is an obligation to treat their clients ethically and refer responsibly any problems that are beyond their scope of practice. The new law and the Certified Counselor credential allows this to happen.


Coaches and Hypnotherapists not affected

Coaches are not affected by this law. This is because they do not call themselves counselors, are not considered part of the health care system, and are therefore not regulated by the DOH. Whether in future someone will try to regulate them is another question. Coaches have a big advantage in that they are organized worldwide. This is an advantage hypnotherapists have as well and a big reason why they were not affected by this new legislation.


The future availability of counseling options in Washington depends on you!

Before the new law on counselors goes into effect, there will be a DOH rule making process that will determine how the law is implemented. Your voice needs to be heard, both in person testifying at public hearings in your area and through your support of organizations that can represent you. WaProCA depends solely on volunteer time and membership fees and is currently the only organization representing Registered Counselors in private practice.

Once the new law goes into effect, it will finally offer those who are currently registered as counselors a way to demonstrate the level of education and professionalism we have had all along. It is a chance to step into, demonstrate and be recognized as the true professionals that we are. This is a great opportunity for us to protect and bring added legitimacy to the many forms of personal growth work and counseling options currently available in our state.

Like most opportunities, this one is only useful if we use it. The law will be reviewed by the legislature four years from now. If counselors invest in the new credential and become certified, then there will continue to be a healthy range of options for counseling services in Washington State. Otherwise in four years we could lose the non-licensed category and the diversity of services and safeguards it provides. It's ultimately up to all of us, both counselors and those who use counseling services, to make this new opportunity work.


To find out more about Washington Professional Counselors Association, visit www.waproac.org. You can read the final version of 2SHB 2674 on the legislative website at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=2674. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and under "Bill Documents" click on "Bill as passed legislature" to download a pdf version of the bill.


By Miriam Dyak, RC, and Kate Abbott, MA, RC, board members, Washington Professional Counselors Association. E-mail Miriam Dyak at miriam@waproca.org and Kate Abbott at kate@waproca.org.

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