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Utah is in a mental health crisis. Why are some social workers opposed to easier licensing?

A bill to remove 1 of 2 mandatory social worker exams is making its way through the Utah Legislature. It was only made mandatory two years ago

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Social working licensing changes are under consideration in Week 5 of the 2023 legislative session.

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Utah prides itself on being a state that wants to make it easier for people to enter the workforce by reducing unnecessary barriers to entry. The Cox-Henderson administration has been serious in moving forward with those goals, including removing a requirement to have a bachelor’s degree for 98% of the state’s 1,080 different classified jobs. Additionally, the state is looking at licensing laws, something that impacts more than one-third of all workers in our state.

Licensing laws can be used to verify a minimum level of training and as a mechanism to impose rules of practice, but they can also be used to create barriers to entry and, in some cases, restraint of another’s trade.

In the 2022 legislative session, the Legislature created an Office of Professional Licensing Review, which will look at every state license at least every 10 years. Licensing requirements will be evaluated based on their current relevance (in other words, have licenses stayed up-to-date with industry innovations), their role in protecting the public and whether or not they are overly restrictive.

The Office of Professional Licensing Review has begun its work by focusing on mental and behavioral health occupations. Utah has a concerningly high level of mental illness, with more than 30% of Utah adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression. More than half of Utah’s new moms report depression before, during or after pregnancy, and our youth — especially our girls — are in crisis, The Utah Department of Health and Human Services has found that all 29 of Utah’s counties have a shortage of mental health professionals. Utah’s communities of color and other marginalized communities have even less access to mental health services.

Social workers currently must have at least a master’s degree, plus 3,000 hours of supervised clinical training, plus pass a national exam upon completion of the training hours. Two years ago, a second exam was moved from optional to mandatory. This one is an exam to be taken after graduation and before beginning clinical hours. National data on this exam shows that it puts minorities and those who speak English as a second language at a distinct disadvantage.

Enter HB250, Social Worker Licensing Amendments, currently being discussed on Utah’s Capitol Hill. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Marsha Judkins, R-Provo, and Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, would remove the mandate for the exam now required before beginning clinical experience.

When the bill was heard in the House committee, Margaret Busse, executive director of the Department of Commerce, spoke and reminded the committee that the Office of Professional Licensing Review is reviewing the mental health licenses. Mark Steinagal, the director of professional licensing, testified that the state is open to multiple paths of entry into professions.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, herself a Black social worker, said she did not pass the social worker exam the first time. She asked if there were any other professions that require passing an exam before starting clinical hours. Joel Johnson, with the National Association of Social Workers and a supporter of the bill, said no.

Speaking to the cultural sensitivity — or lack thereof — Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Murray, asked the following: “Is it advisable, while talking to a client, to look them directly eye-to-eye?” She then explained that in some Asian cultures, direct eye contact could be considered not only disrespectful, but threatening. “Sometimes”, she said, “tests don’t ask questions in ways that are culturally relevant” or sensitive.

Marette Monson, the chair of the Social Work Licensing Board (the board that made this test mandatory two years ago), testified that the board is opposed to this bill for two reasons. The first, she said, is because it would put the public at risk and second, because there could potentially be an issue with portability of licenses between states.

However, on Feb. 14, the National Association of Social Workers released a statement regarding the Interstate Compact Bill, that read in part that they anticipated the final draft would allow for “Increased flexibilities for states that may remove requirements for BSW and/or MSW Examinations.” At this point, the compact has not been finalized.

HB250 is on the Senate Second Reading calendar.