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Two licensing boards, for psychologists and counselors, at impasse with governor over sexual orientation language

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Two state licensing boards that oversee psychologists and mental health counselors have been at odds with two Nebraska governors and the Nebraska Catholic Conference for almost a decade over sexual orientation and gender identity language in their rules.

The two licensing boards -- the Board of Psychology and the Board of Mental Health Practice -- have been unable to update their rules because they have refused to compromise on these issues.

And it looks like that impasse will continue, after the administration of Gov. Pete Ricketss recently rejected both sets of rules and provided its own draft of acceptable language.

That proposed language -- which strips out antidiscrimination protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity -- “is completely unacceptable and egregious,” said Dr. Anne Talbot, president of the Nebraska Psychological Association, which represents psychologists across the state.

Her group will oppose the administration's proposed changes when the issue is before the state licensing board May 31.

And the state Board of Mental Health Practice, which regulates social workers, marriage and family therapists and other mental health counselors, voted at a recent meeting to retain the sexual orientation and identity language in its new proposed rules, thus rejecting the administration version.

Both groups have consistently wanted to make sure sexual orientation and gender identity are covered by anti-discrimination language in their licensing rules.

And both licensing boards have said they want to require professionals to make thoughtful referrals when the counselor or psychologist doesn’t want to or can’t provide counseling related to these issues.

But the Nebraska Catholic Conference objected to the sexual orientation language in 2008 public hearings and want referral language that allows a counselor who has moral objections to give a client a list rather than make a more thoughtful referral.

Health and Human Services administrators for both Ricketts and former Gov. Dave Heineman have refused to approve the licensing rules that cover these issues, and they sat in limbo for years.

Last month the Ricketts administration rejected proposed rules for both organizations, and provided its own draft of acceptable language. That draft removes any reference to sexual orientation or gender identity and in the mental health practice rules includes the referral language that many professionals find objectionable.

The Board of Mental Health Practice recently voted unanimously to retain the proposed anti-discrimination language covering sexual orientation and gender identity in a new set of proposed rules, knowing it has the potential to kill their proposed regulations again.

The Board of Psychology is expected to discuss the draft of its rules offered by the administration at a March 31 meeting. 

Updating the old regulations is important in order to keep up with trends in technology and practice, said Susan Feyen of Omaha, who represents social workers on the Board of Mental Health Practice.

For example, the board currently has no way to regulate a counselor in another state counseling people in Nebraska using telehealth equipment, she said.

Outdated supervision requirements in the current rules for psychologists has hurt efforts to recruit and retain doctorate psychology candidates, said William Spaulding, professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

Many professionals licensed by both groups are adamant the anti-discrimination and appropriate referral language be included in their licensing rules.

In a memo to board members, board chair Dale Battleson of Omaha, pointed out the anti-discrimination language has been “overwhelmingly endorsed” during public hearings and “firmly supported” by previous board actions.

This is not a political issue, he said in that memo. "It is meant to protect the public, including Nebraskans with a history of disenfranchisement and prejudice."

“It does not reflect a desire to shape public policy, but rather reflects the board’s desire to hold social workers, professional counselors and marriage and family therapist to a higher level of standard…”

Two state associations representing marriage and family therapists and social workers also objected to the proposed changes made by the administration at the board meeting.

“I encourage you to reject the administration’s proposal and write regulations that best protect the public,” said Terry Werner, executive director of the Nebraska chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, in a letter to the board.

Before the recent action by the Ricketts administration, the Board of Psychology and the Nebraska Psychological Association had been trying to work with HHS to get their proposed rules approved, according to Talbot.

Instead of continued work, the administration rejected the proposed rules and sent back their own version.  

No one knows who wrote the draft rules, returned to the state board last month, said Talbot. “We have no information on who wrote them, but there was no consultation with the state association or the licensing board,” she said.

The state association will recommend the board reject the “so-called revision,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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