Hundreds protest proposed therapy ban for counselors: 'People will die'

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Lansing — Licensed professional counselors have united to protest a proposed state rule change they say would prevent them from treating about 150,000 Michigan residents with mental illness and substance use disorders. 

More than 1,000 mental health and substance abuse counselors flooded a hearing last week to object to changes by the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that counselors say would prevent them from diagnosing clients or providing psychotherapy. 

Licensed professional counselor Lyanna Leibert of Utica and her husband, Todd Leibert, chair of the counseling program at Oakland University, were among more than 1,000 counselors in Lansing on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, to protest a state rule change they say would bar them from diagnosing clients or providing therapy.

Dozens of members of the Michigan Mental Health Counselors Association, which represents 10,000 licensed professional counselors in the state, testified against the proposal. They said it would hurt members of their profession, who are on the front lines of efforts to combat overdose and suicide deaths. 

"Not only have I saved lives, many of the people in this room have saved lives," licensed professional counselor Lisa Robinson testified Friday. "People will die, and that won't be our fault." 

About 10,000 clients who receive rehabilitation services also require mental health services that would be jeopardized by the rule change, said licensed professional counselor Rosanne Renauer, testifying on behalf of the 11,000-member Michigan Rehabilitation Association.

Academics from the counseling programs at Michigan State, Central, Western, Eastern and other state universities also objected to LARA's proposal. 

By moving the words "diagnosis and psychotherapy" from one section of state regulations to another, the state would clarify that licensed professional counselors are not authorized to provide these services under state statutes, according to LARA.

"(T)he Board of Counselors and the counseling profession have been interpreting the rules to mean that licensees are allowed to diagnose and use psychotherapy techniques, despite the statute not allowing this practice under the profession’s scope," LARA said in the statement sent to The News.

But counselors said they've been providing the services for decades.

Jim Blundo, executive director of the counselors' association, began his testimony by questioning the state agency's legal authority to promulgate rules that affect the scope of their practice. 

The change would "directly violate the counseling profession's ethical standards, rendering Michigan's 10,000 licensed mental health counselors from being able to legally practice and do so at a time when the need for professional mental health services in our state could not be greater," Blundo said.

About 38% of Michigan residents with mental illness go untreated, or about 650,000 people, according to a study released in August by Altarum Institute, a Ann Arbor-based health nonprofit research and consulting group. Funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the study found 80% of residents with substance use disorders go untreated, or about 500,000 people.

The counselors contend that insurance companies will be unlikely to pay counselors for what the state would now consider to be illegal services. 

"Without the ability to bill insurance, I could no longer be able to treat 80-90% of my clients," licensed professional counselor Cheryl Kallio said. "Your proposed rule change would all but end my career." 

LARA has worked with the state Board of Counseling and the association for years to clarify the rules, according to the agency's statement. 

"Each time efforts were made to proceed in updating the rules, the Michigan Mental Health Counselors Association and licensed counselors moved forward with legislative efforts to have the law changed to allow the counselors to diagnose and use psychotherapy techniques," LARA said. 

"On each occasion, the department agreed to delay the rule-making process to give the stakeholders an opportunity to work it out in statute."

LARA noted the Legislature didn't adopt legislation proposed in 2018. Counselors who testified Friday asked the agency to delay its proposed action to give the Legislature time to pass a new proposal known as House Bill 4325, which was introduced in March. 

The House and Senate passed separate bills dealing with the subject but they failed to reconcile their differences, said Blundo of the counselors' association.

Twitter: @kbouffardDN