Consumer protection bill filed to restrict use of ‘psychotherapist’

By Pamela Berard
April 1st, 2014

Proposed Massachusetts legislation would restrict use of the terms “psychotherapist” or “psychotherapy” to only those professionals licensed with “psychotherapy” included in their statutory scope of practice.

“An Act to Protect Psychotherapy Patients” (Bill H. 3466), submitted by Rep. Ruth B. Balser (D-Newton), states that the division of professional licensure may, after a consent agreement between the parties or after an opportunity for an adjudicatory hearing, assess and collect a civil administrative penalty for people who represent themselves to the public as “psychotherapists” or represent their services as “psychotherapy” unless they are currently licensed by the board of registration in medicine, board of registration in nursing, board of registration of psychologists, board of registration of social workers, or the board of registration of allied mental health and human services professional, and practicing within the scope of practice of such license; or are a student, intern, or person fulfilling supervised experience for licensure in those professions under the qualified supervision of a licensee.

The legislation was referred to the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, and the committee could take action by late March, Balser says.

Balser says the genesis of the bill was concerns that individuals whose licenses were revoked – causing them to lose the ability to call themselves a psychologist or psychiatrist, for example – could still refer to themselves as a “psychotherapist.”

“The licensing board was concerned that it would be important to protect the term ‘psychotherapy’ as well,” Balser says. Balser says one of the reasons this legislation is important is that the word “psychotherapy” is used in reference to reimbursed services in insurance claims.

“It’s used in a medical context and the average consumer probably assumes that psychotherapy is being performed by a licensed, trained professional,” Balser says. “So we see this bill as a consumer protection bill.”

Balser says there are some groups who oppose the bill who call themselves psychotherapists. “I have advised those groups to try to seek licensure just the way psychologists did,” Balser says. “Psychologists went through a lengthy process a number of years ago to become licensed, as did social workers. I’m not saying no one else should get licensed. I am saying a consumer should know that if someone is performing a procedure that is recognized by the public as a medical procedure that that person is really licensed by the Commonwealth.”

“I think we have to establish some standards for psychotherapy, and the standard is licensure, and include scope of practice within that license.”

During a Feb. 4 hearing on the legislation, Michael A. Goldberg, Ph.D., director of professional affairs for the Massachusetts Psychological Association, presented written testimony on behalf of the MPA in support of 3466, which was drafted in conjunction with the MPA and several other professional organizations.

“It is our firm belief that this consumer legislation is needed to protect the public from potential abuse from providers mistreating and exploiting vulnerable mental health patients,” Goldberg read.

His testimony noted that the bill was a consumer protection bill and would not alter, diminish or expand the scope of practice of any professions or change any language in any other statutory scope of practice of any group not involved in the drafting of it.

“Psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and psychotherapist. Some of you may think they are all the same and that we need more access to professionals trained to treat mental illness,” Goldberg read. “But they are not the same. Citizens struggling with mental health problems are the most vulnerable members of the Commonwealth. They are the ones who can be confused by the different titles and they rely on you to make sure they are not exploited by professionals who lack adequate comprehensive training and oversight.”

Goldberg’s testimony noted that consumers are often surprised to learn that the designation of the terms “psychotherapy” and “psychotherapists” are not regulated in the state. The dangers are clear, he noted, because clinicians who have lost their license to practice for sexual exploitation of patients or other misconduct have the ability to set up shop and call themselves psychotherapists until this bill is passed.

On the same day of the hearing, Goldberg urged the committee to vote against another bill, H. 236, “An Act for Consumer Protection and Regulation in Psychotherapy,” which would create a new and separate licensing process for “psychoanalysts.”

“Psychoanalysis is not a ‘profession,’” Goldberg’s statement read. “Rather, it is a type of psychotherapy.

“Creating separate professions for practitioners of each individual type of psychotherapy is neither practical nor in the consumers’ best interest.”

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