Bill to let counselors keep diagnosing is sent to Gov. Whitmer

Lawmakers voted Thursday to update Michigan's law so that 10,000 counselors can continue diagnosing mental disorders and using psychotherapy techniques amid concerns over regulators' plan to revise licensing rules governing the profession.

Licensed professional counselors packed the Senate gallery and cheered following the 38-0 vote. The bill was sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her expected signature.

It would prevent the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs from changing the rules in a way that affects counselors' current practices. The agency has said the current rules are outdated and existing law does not let counselors actually diagnose and use psychotherapy techniques, even if they have been doing so for many years.

The new regulations, if adopted, could hurt counselors' ability to practice because insurers need a diagnosis to reimburse claims.

"The value of licensed, professional counselors in our state cannot be understated, especially when so many people are struggling to deal with the stress and anxiety that comes with daily life," said Sen. Sylvia Santana, a Detroit Democrat. "I am proud of their work not only for their clients, but also for their rights as medical professionals."

Sara Schaeffer, of the Michigan Mental Health Counselors Association, testified in support of the legislation on Wednesday, a week after it unanimously cleared the House. If the bill is not enacted and the rules are changed, she said, counselors' scope of practice would be altered significantly.

"It would just put us out of business," she said. "Counselors would be in the position, if the rules passed, of being in conflict with our code of ethics if they did not diagnose, which is a violation of the public health code, and they would be in conflict with the public health code if they did diagnose. We would be in a situation where we wouldn't know what to do."

Asked how the legislation would affect the rule-making process, Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department spokesman Jason Moon said the current and proposed rules "have nothing to do with the scope of practice for the profession. The pending rules provide needed updates around education, training, accreditation and standards."

The counselors' group estimates at least 150,000 people are treated by counselors. Others who provide mental health services in Michigan include psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists.