Senate unanimously backs bill letting counselors diagnose patients

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate on Thursday joined the state House in unanimously approving legislation that would allow licensed professional counselors to diagnose clients and provide psychotherapy.

The bill, which heads to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's desk for consideration, would counter changes planned by the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that counselors say would prevent them from diagnosing clients. Whitmer has signaled her support for the Legislation, said Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, the bill's sponsor, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist joined counselors on the Capitol steps after the Senate vote.

"Licensed professional counselors play an integral role in the mental health services" and the governor's administration would support the bill to expand their "scope of practice," Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. 

Laurie Church and Rebecca Verkest, licensed professional counselors in Clinton County, protest outside the state Capitol Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, to oppose new licensing rules that they say would jeopardize the licenses of thousands of counselors in Michigan by removing their ability to diagnose.

The pending LARA changes would affect about 10,000 licensed professional counselors and 150,000 Michigan residents with mental illness and substance use disorders, counselors said. The rule changes were first proposed by the administration of Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. 

The proposed rule changes from LARA brought more than 1,000 counselors to the Capitol earlier this month in opposition.

LARA’s changes would move the words “diagnosis and psychotherapy” from one section of state regulations to another to clarify that licensed professional counselors are not authorized to provide those services under state statutes.

"(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 this month in a statement.

The Senate-passed bill codifies current practice for licensed professional counselors, allowing them to continue diagnosing and providing therapy to clients.

“It protects the current structure for licensed professional counselors,” said Miller, who drafted the bill after being contacted by counselors concerned about the changes. “Their professions were on the line and that’s what got them organized.”

Each time the agency has attempted to update the rules in the past, the Michigan Mental Health Counselors Association and licensed counselors pushed legislators for action and the department agreed to delay changes in response to the efforts, the department said this month. But legislation changing the law to allow counselors to diagnose was unsuccessful until this year. 

Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, which had been neutral on the bill, referred further questions to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Health and Human Services "strongly supports the bill to preserve access to care," said spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin.