For 10,000 Michigan counselors, bill’s passage a sigh of relief

Psychologists had raised doubts about whether the state’s licensed counselors had sufficient training to diagnose patients and perform psychotherapy. A law signed Tuesday ensures counselors retain broad rights to treat clients. (Shutterstock image)

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As expected, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill Tuesday advocates say will spare 10,000 Michigan counselors from crippling limits on their practice.

The bill came in response to proposed new practice guidelines issued by the state that would have denied licensed professional counselors the right to diagnose patients and use psychotherapy. Advocates said those limitations could have put many counselors out of business.

“This new law will ensure that more than 150,000 Michiganders can still access critical mental health care,” Whitmer said in a statement.

“And it will protect 10,000 professional counselors from losing the ability to practice as they currently do. We must continue to work hard to ensure every Michigander has access to critical mental health care, and this is a step in the right direction.”

The measure, first proposed by state Rep. Aaron Miller, R- Sturgis, enshrines those broader practice rights in state law – thus blocking changes proposed by the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The bill had been approved unanimously by the state House and Senate.

James Blundo, executive director of the Michigan Mental Health Counselors Association, earlier this month called passage of the law “a great moment for this profession. When you codify it, it’s the law.”

Blundo told Bridge that LARA’s proposed limits on counseling scope of practice “would have been devastating” to the profession.

Blundo and other advocates said that’s largely because without the right to diagnose patients, counselors could not bill insurance for counseling – in effect, cutting off many patients from care and putting counselors out of business.

Advocates also warned that licensing restrictions proposed by LARA could harm approximately 150,000 clients across Michigan who depend on counseling services at a time when suicide is on the rise and rural regions lack access to a range of professional mental health care.

Anahid Derbabian, a suburban Detroit counselor, called the passage of the measure into law “a miracle. It’s unbelievable to me,” she told Bridge on Tuesday.

“The utter thought of me having to give up my life’s work, not being able to guide people forward in their lives, was just a horrendous thought. It could have been a very different scenario.

“It could have been 10,000 counselors, asking, ‘What now?’ There could have 150,000 residents saying, ‘Where do I go now?’”

LARA acknowledged that licensed counselors in Michigan have for years been essentially “allowed to diagnose and use psychotherapy techniques” on patients.

But in proposing new guidelines for counseling scope of practice, it asserted that those practices conflict with a 1988 state statute defining the parameters of what licensed counselors are allowed to do. LARA interpreted the 1988 law as prohibiting counselors from diagnosing clients and using psychotherapy.

Sara Sue Schaeffer, a licensed professional counselor appointed in 1988 as the first chair of the Michigan Board of Counseling, asserts that LARA was wrong in its interpretation of the 1988 law.

Schaeffer said the section of the law that prohibits counselors from diagnosis only refers to diagnostic tests – not to a diagnostic interview, which is how counselors commonly assess and diagnose clients.

The Michigan Psychological Association, which represents doctoral-level psychologists ‒ who receive more training in diagnosing patients and providing mental-health therapy ‒ has long contended that licensing rules should be updated to ensure counselors receive more training in mental health diagnosis before they treat those clients.

In Michigan, licensed professional counselors have to earn at least a master’s degree in counseling, pass a national exam and complete 3,000 hours of post-degree counseling experience over two years with at least 100 hours in the immediate presence of the supervisor. According to LARA, there are 10,536 licensed counselors in Michigan.

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