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Leading Social Work Organizations Call on Lawmakers to Ensure Equality of Mental Health Care for All New Yorkers

Current licensure exemption allows seven New York State agencies to hire unlicensed employees to provide mental health services


(ALBANY, NY, January 9, 2018) – Leaders and partners of New York’s largest social work associations are calling on the Governor and the Legislature to end the licensure exemption that puts many New Yorkers – generally the most vulnerable and low-income – at risk of seeing untrained and under-supervised mental health providers.


For nearly 14 years, programs operated, funded, or regulated by seven of the state’s agencies have been exempt from hiring licensed employees to provide mental health services, including the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, despite the fact that unlicensed employees do not have the same extensive education and external legal standards of professional conduct as licensed practitioners.


“The diagnosis and treatment of a severe mental illness requires an educated and experienced clinician, and the current system does not provide that. This is a matter of public safety and equity in care,” said Samantha Howell, Esq., Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers – New York State Chapter (NASW-NYS). “Unlicensed providers should not be diagnosing and providing treatment, and the State should not stand idly by as this bifurcated system of care impacts those most in need of support and treatment.”


Representatives from the National Association of Social Workers – New York State and New York City Chapters, the New York State Society for Clinical Social Work, and Health Assets Management, Inc. converged upon Albany today to urge the state to end this bifurcated system of care by holding agencies accountable to the 2002 social work licensing law.


In 2002, after more than 28 years of negotiation between the legislature, stakeholder provider groups, and trade associations, the practice of social work became one of the state’s licensed professions. In doing so, a minimum standard of education, experience, and exam requirements was established to ensure that individuals providing mental health services were qualified to do so.


“Without proper education and supervised experience in preparation for clinical licensing, it is unlikely that, given the complexity of mental illness, a cost-effective diagnosis, treatment plan, and appropriate implementation can be delivered. It’s time for these state agencies to come into compliance,” said Ross McCabe of the New York State Society for Clinical Social Work.


At the time, state agencies alleged that it would be too costly and burdensome to meet the licensing requirement, so an extension was given. Since then, state agencies have continued to receive repeated extensions – claiming licensed social workers are too expensive and too rare to hire for positions, and arguing many workers would likely be unwilling to invest in the training required to become licensed.


Exempt agencies include: Office of Mental Health (OMH), Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), Office for Children and Family Services (OCFS), Office for the Aging (SOFA), Department of Health (DOH), and Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS).


In his 2018 State of the State address, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo called for a continued investment in the state’s healthcare, stating, “…in New York, healthcare is not just for the rich, it’s a human right.” Mental health is a vital part of any comprehensive healthcare system, and like all other healthcare services, it requires trained and licensed professionals. Social workers share a fundamental belief in equality and access to care, regardless of socioeconomic background, and are specifically trained to provide and ensure access to high-quality services.


“If we were talking about a heart condition or a broken arm, it would be considered malpractice for an unqualified individual to make a diagnosis,” said Carmel L. Gold, president and CEO, Health Assets Management Inc. “It is critical that every person in need of mental health and child welfare services be diagnosed by a provider who is licensed to diagnose – not just those who can afford better care and not just those who seek care from exempt agencies and who are ‘lucky’ enough to see a licensed provider on their day of diagnosis.”


“The NYS Association of Deans of Schools of Social work calls upon both houses of the Legislature to take the steps necessary to end the exemption from social work licensing now. We care deeply about ensuring that all consumers seeking mental health services are seen by a qualified professional social worker, not just those with private insurance,” said Dr. Victoria Rizzo, representing the New York State Association of Deans of Schools of Social Work.


New York State has some of the most stringent licensing requirements and professional standards for social work in the country: licensed clinical social workers must go through extensive training that unlicensed professionals do not, including having a master’s degree in social work, passing several licensing examinations, and spending three years under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker.

Currently, agencies have until July 1, 2018, to comply with the licensing requirements passed in 2002.


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About the Social Work Investment Initiative

The Social Work Investment Initiative is a legislative initiative introduced by the National Association of Social Workers – New York State (NASW-NYS) Chapter, in collaboration with the National Association of Social Workers – New York City (NASW-NYC) Chapter, the New York State Society for Clinical Social Work (NYSSCSW), and the New York State Association of Deans of Schools of Social Work, that seeks to secure a substantial state investment into the social work profession, specifically in settings operated, funded, or regulated by the state agencies. This legislative initiative will be tied to the resolution of the licensure exemption and move state agencies to come into compliance with the 2002 social work licensing law.