Change in state legislation benefits counseling psychology master’s program

BEMIDJI, Minn. (Dec. 14, 2009) — The shortage of licensed mental health care professionals in Minnesota is well known. Only 17 of the state’s 87 counties have avoided federal designation as Health Professional Shortage Areas for mental health, and every county in the state north of Anoka County holds that designation.

The state’s answer to its dire shortage of mental health practitioners was the creation of the Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC), a new licensing category for counseling professionals created by the Minnesota legislature in 2007.

This new license required students to complete a program with 60 graduate credits and undergo 4,000 hours of supervision. The new license’s requirements went beyond what was previously demanded of master’s-level practitioners and was a deliberate effort to develop effective practitioners who could serve in high-need areas.

“There is a dire need for professionals in our region,” said Dr. Richard Hook, professor of psychology at Bemidji State University and chair of the school’s psychology department. “We have very few Ph.D.-level practitioners to provide care in this region. Most providers in the area have significant wait lists for new clients.”

To support this new licensing category and respond to Northern Minnesota’s need for more mental health care professionals, Bemidji State University’s psychology department launched a master’s program in counseling psychology in 2005. The program was designed specifically to prepare its graduates for Minnesota’s LPCC license.

“Our program was designed once we heard about the new Minnesota license,” said Dr. Louise Jackson, professor of psychology. “We viewed the program as meeting a critical need for our area. We opened our doors in 2005 and had a good response.

“We’re in a seriously under-served area,” Jackson added. “Many professionals prefer to work in urban areas, but our program’s goal was to find professionals who want to stay in rural areas and help families.”

However, the University’s potential to serve as a pipeline for much-needed help in Northern Minnesota quickly encountered a significant speed bump.

The well-intentioned legislation that created the LPCC practitioner included an oversight. The legislation did not officially name holders of the license “mental health professionals,” leaving them without the ability to bill for their services from state and federal aid programs.

For rural areas where populations in need rely heavily on aid programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, being unable to use those programs for payment made people essentially unable to access a care option that had been intentionally created for them.

A lobbying effort with the state legislature was launched to correct the initial oversight, and in the summer of 2009 Minnesota passed new legislation placing LPCCs on its list of accepted service providers. This change finally allowed practitioners with that license to begin billing aid programs for their services.

Now, the groups which lobbied successfully for the change in legislation are working to educate mental health professionals and potential consumers of mental health services alike on the new-found value in the LPCC license.

“The long saga from 2003 to 2009 finally resulted in the desired outcome,” Jackson said. “We want everyone in the community to know this has been accomplished. The LPCC is a professional-level license that will allow you to make a contribution, and Bemidji State’s master’s in counseling psychology program prepares you well for a career in this field.

“Due to the limitations of the LPCC license, recent graduates of our program have had to leave the state to pursue work,” Jackson said. “With the changes made this summer, there is no reason qualified, young professionals will have to leave Minnesota in order to find work. Now, we can count on our local communities to hold on to them.”