It’s a frustrating scenario that happens all too often. A counselor moves to a new state and finds that although she has been practicing and licensed for years (or sometimes even decades), she doesn’t meet the requirements to become licensed in her new place of residence.
That’s because counselor licensure titles and requirements across the United States still vary from state to state. Even the most veteran counselor might need to secure additional supervision hours or meet other requirements to become licensed after moving across state lines.
However, this may not be the case for too many more years. The American Counseling Association and the American Association of State Counseling Boards (AASCB) are working on two separate initiatives aimed at solidifying professional counselor identity and turning licensure portability into a reality. State licensing boards will be receiving two letters in the coming months, each requesting changes that might make it easier for counselor licenses to transfer from state to state in the future.
“I see this [license portability] as the most important discussion point in the regulatory process for our profession,” says Bill Green, a past president of AASCB and chair of the Professional Counselor Examiners Committee, which regulates the practice of professional counseling and rehabilitation counseling in New Jersey. “My goal is to see portability in my lifetime. I’m 66, and I’m optimistic.”
The first of the two letters will ask state licensing boards across the United States to adopt a uniform professional title — licensed professional counselor (LPC) — and a uniform scope of practice, a five-paragraph job description that defines the work of professional counselors (see sidebar, below). This letter is the culmination of the Building Blocks to Portability Project that was part of 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling, a yearslong strategic planning initiative that was co-sponsored by ACA and AASCB.
The second letter will introduce the AASCB Five-Year Portability Proposal. This idea, developed and endorsed at AASCB’s annual conference this past January, would encourage state licensing boards to grant licenses to counselors who move into their state with at least five years of professional experience and a license in good standing in their previous state.
The first letter will be a joint message from AASCB and ACA, co-signed by the presidents of both associations. The second letter will be from AASCB alone, says Susan Hammonds-White, AASCB president. The two letters will be sent to licensing boards in 52 jurisdictions, which includes all 50 states plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Both initiatives aim to make counselor licensure more portable and uniform across the country.
License requirements for counselors were set up state by state over a period of decades — beginning with Virginia in 1976 and ending with California in 2009 — as the profession matured and pushed to establish itself. But in the process, significant disparities arose between counselor licenses across the United States, from the number of supervision hours required to obtain a license to the license titles themselves.
More than 35 different license titles are currently in use by professional counselors across the country, points out David Kaplan, ACA’s chief professional officer. Kaplan, a past president of ACA who has worked as a counselor and counselor educator, says the profession is currently in the midst of a “portability crisis.”
In an age when people are more transient, the state-to-state license disparities routinely pose a hardship for counselors, says Hammonds-White, an ACA member and LPC in private practice in Nashville, Tennessee. She believes the counseling profession has reached a stage of development and maturity that will now allow it to address those disparities.
“We’ve been a profession long enough now to have enough longevity and enough people who have been in the field for a while to be able to look at ourselves in a more unified way,” she says.
In the counseling process, it is key for the counselor and the client to understand and trust each other. The same holds true for the factions within the counseling profession, Hammonds-White says. “Maybe we’re doing that [trusting] at a more national level. Maybe what we’re saying is, ‘I see you. I see you as legitimate. I accept what you have chosen to do in your state … [and] I’m OK with you becoming a counselor in my state.’ I see it as another step in the process of connecting across the country,” she says.
According to Kaplan and Hammonds-White, ACA and AASCB receive more calls and questions from counselors about licensure portability than any other issue. Kaplan says ACA headquarters receives at least 10 calls per week from members who are facing challenges related to licensure portability, including those who are moving because of a new job, a life change such as a marriage or divorce, or a spouse who is in the military.
“It’s the single biggest issue we get calls about,” Kaplan says.
A move toward uniformity
The joint letter from ACA and AASCB is expected to be sent this spring, according to Kaplan. A draft was being written as this article went to print.
Co-signed by Hammonds-White and ACA President Robert L. Smith, the letter will formally request that state licensing boards take necessary action to adopt licensed professional counselor as the professional title in their state, along with the five-paragraph scope of practice for counselors.
In certain states, making such changes will take time and may pose a challenge. “We’re asking states to do something that is hard for states to do, which is to open their statutes,” Hammonds-White says. “Depending on the political climate to a degree, opening the statute, you have to be a little watchful about doing that. [However], we hope that some states will be able to do this relatively easily.”
The procedure will vary from state to state, Kaplan explains. Some licensing boards have the ability to change regulations on their own, while others must first petition their state legislature. He is hopeful that some states will adopt the counselor license title and scope of practice within the next year, with a majority of state boards following suit within five years.
“It’s kind of like a wave,” Hammonds-White says. “If we get enough states to get a critical mass going, other states will look at what’s being done and [decide] to get on board. It’s kind of like the domino effect.”
Having a uniform license title and scope of practice rather than the hodgepodge of different titles and job descriptions that currently exist for counselors across the United States should help remove at least two of the obstacles to license portability for counselors, Kaplan says.
This past fall, there was widespread endorsement of both a single licensure title (LPC) and a scope of practice for professional counseling among the 31 major counseling organizations that participated in the 20/20 Building Blocks to Portability Project. Of the 29 organizations that ultimately voted, only the American Mental Health Counselors Association voted not to endorse the common licensure title, while the National Rehabilitation Counseling Association voted not to endorse the scope of practice.
[Editor’s note: The American Rehabilitation Counseling Association (ARCA) voted against accepting the scope of practice last fall. However, the organization changed position and voted to endorse the scope of practice at the 2015 ACA Conference and Expo in March.]
“Being able to say that the profession of counseling accepts this [licensure title and scope of practice] really gives it gravitas. … This shows we’re working on [portability] and making progress,” Kaplan says. “It won’t be immediate, but it’s progress.”
The five-year proposal
The counseling profession’s leaders are taking a multipronged approach to addressing licensure portability, Kaplan says. The scope of practice and licensure title constitute one prong, while AASCB’s five-year proposal represents another prong.
“We need multiple fronts on this,” he says. “There’s no one magic answer that will solve everything as it gets complicated.”
The AASCB five-year proposal will recommend allowing licensing boards to grant licenses to counselors who move into the state with five or more years of experience and a license in good standing from their previous state. Some states might also choose to require a jurisprudence exam, Hammonds-White says.
“This is AASCB’s response to the concerns that we hear, as board members, all the time regarding portability,” she says. “We hear from counselors who move with years, even decades, of experience, and in most circumstances they have to meet the requirements of their new state, which may mean more supervision hours. … We see the effects on people’s lives. We’re very committed to working on portability.”
AASCB will draft a letter asking states to adopt the five-year proposal in the coming months, after the joint letter regarding the uniform scope of practice and preferred licensure title has been sent, Hammonds-White says.
As is the case with the request concerning the scope of practice and licensure title, adoption of AASCB’s five-year proposal would require some states to modify their statues. In New Jersey, for instance, it could take a full year to make such a significant change, says Green, a longtime ACA member and retired professor of rehabilitation counseling at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which has since merged with Rutgers University. “Counselors need to recognize that any changes we’re proposing require regulatory and statutory process, and that takes time,” he says. “If we can get this conversation, this dialogue, started now, we can make for a quicker passage of any kind of regulatory or statutory changes that need to be made.”
Here, too, Hammonds-White hopes to see a domino effect, with licensing boards adopting the idea as they see other states doing so.
The idea that eventually grew into the five-year proposal was first mentioned and discussed at AASCB’s annual conference in the winter of 2014, according to Hammonds-White. Members were receptive to the idea and returned to AASCB’s 2015 conference in January having spent the year giving it serious thought. “We discussed it more [in January] and really decided it was the way to go,” Hammonds-White says. “It became a proposal, something we feel will work. … As the conference closed, we introduced this proposal for [AASCB] state representatives to take back to their state counseling boards to take a look at.”
Hammonds-White, Kaplan and Green moderated a closing session on license portability at AASCB’s January conference, which was held in Savannah, Georgia. Green calls the proposal “a more creative way of looking ahead.”
“We want to make sure all voices are heard, but at the same time keep AASCB as an independent voice for the regulatory process for our profession,” he says. “We want to make sure we’re doing what’s in the best interest for [the licensing boards’] role, which is to protect the public.”
Keeping the momentum going
Once the two letters are sent, ACA and AASCB will follow up with state licensing boards to provide support and offer any assistance they may need to ensure the five-year proposal, scope of practice and licensure title are adopted, Kaplan says.
The best way for counselors to keep the momentum going is to contact their respective state counseling associations and licensing boards. It will be helpful if counselors let these entities know that the issue of portability is important and that counselors support the ACA and AASCB initiatives, agree Green and Hammonds-White.
“This is the time to step up to the plate,” Green says. “I hope counselors recognize that they have the right to address [portability] concerns with their state licensing boards. [Getting involved] will help move things along.”
Green, Kaplan and Hammonds-White get the sense that the counseling profession will be receptive to the portability proposals from AASCB and ACA — much more so than might have been the case even five years ago. Trust and cooperation between states has increased dramatically during that time, they agree. Hammonds-White points out that two states, Louisiana and Iowa, already accept out-of-state licenses from counselors with five or more years of experience, much as the AASCB five-year proposal hopes to achieve.
“We’ve seen so many significant changes in our profession in recent history,” Green says. “A couple of years ago, people would have said this [portability] could never happen. We’ve been able to have a very mature conversation with all the players. … I’m proud of the fact that ACA and AASCB are willing to take these creative steps as a way to address portability. There are challenges, but I’m confident and hopeful this could be a way to address national portability.”
New Jersey’s Professional Counselor Examiners Committee met in February. Green, its president and chair, says he explained the upcoming portability initiatives to members as well as the two letters that will be arriving in the coming months. “We’re ready to begin the process in New Jersey,” he says. “We’re starting to get our ducks in order.”
New Jersey already uses LPC as the professional title for counselors. However, if the board decides to adopt the scope of practice and five-year proposal, it will require a statutory change, Green says.
At the same time, New Jersey is ahead of the game when it comes to portability because the state licensing board has the ability to waive some of the statutory requirements for counselors who have three or more years of experience in another state, Green explains. This is considered on a case-by-case basis, he adds.
Portability is a complicated issue, and these initiatives won’t be a total solution for the challenges counselors face in this area, Kaplan says. However, they do offer a step in the right direction and represent movement on a topic that may need to be untangled for years to come.
For example, AASCB discussed two portability ideas at its January conference that are still in the development phase. The first would involve licensure reciprocity between states that share a border, such as Tennessee and Kentucky. If the idea were to come to fruition, state licensing boards could set up an agreement to accept counselor licenses from a neighboring state, and vice versa, Hammonds-White says. This would make circumstances much easier for counselors who live near the border of two or more states.
The second idea is for regional agreements. In this scenario, multiple states within a region — for example, New England or the Southwest — would agree to accept licenses from practitioners who move state to state within the region. These types of interstate compacts “involve a whole lot of legalities,” Hammonds-White acknowledges. “We’re just starting to look at the idea.”
In addition to the five-year proposal, these ideas, though still in the development and discussion phase, show that AASCB is committed to working on portability, Hammonds-White says.
“State licensing boards have done an admirable job of complying to legislative statutes by establishing regulations to protect the public,” Green says. “That is the primary goal of all licensing boards, to protect the public. … We have certainly done that, and I’m very proud of our states. But I also recognize that it’s a very transient profession. Counselors are constantly moving from state to state. We see that in the emails and phone calls that ACA and AASCB receive. We take this as a very responsible challenge for us.”
Counseling licensure board representatives from Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia met at the ACA 2015 Conference in Orlando to discuss an interstate compact for counselor licensure. On Friday, March 20, Kentucky and Tennessee signed the agreement and the other two states are moving forward to implement the compact. This is the first advancement of an interstate compact for reciprocity of counselor licensure within a region.
[Editor’s note: This news came to fruition after the above article went to print.]
Background information on the 20/20 initiative, as well as contact information for state counseling associations and licensing boards, can be found on the ACA website at counseling.org. Once finalized, a copy of the joint letter from ACA and AASCB will be posted to the CT Online website at ct.counseling.org.
Scope of practice for professional counseling as endorsed by 20/20 organizations
The independent practice of counseling encompasses the provision of professional counseling services to individuals, groups, families, couples and organizations through the application of accepted and established mental health counseling principles, methods, procedures and ethics.
Counseling promotes mental health wellness, which includes the achievement of social, career and emotional development across the life span, as well as preventing and treating mental disorders and providing crisis intervention.
Counseling includes, but is not limited to, psychotherapy, diagnosis, evaluation; administration of assessments, tests and appraisals; referral; and the establishment of counseling plans for the treatment of individuals, couples, groups and families with emotional, mental, addiction and physical disorders.
Counseling encompasses consultation and program evaluation, program administration within and to schools and organizations, and training and supervision of interns, trainees and prelicensed professional counselors through accepted and established principles, methods, procedures and ethics of counselor supervision.
The practice of counseling does not include functions or practices that are not within the professional’s training or education.
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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