Changing minds, changing law: How California is easing practice mobility for licensed social workers

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When California governor Gavin Newsom signs a bill into law, it often makes national news. But even though his signature on Senate Bill 679 may not have garnered media headlines, the legislation is big news for regulators of social work and other licensed professions.

graphic with a gear image inside a red circleThe law, which goes into effect on January 1, 2020, will streamline the process for licensed professional clinical counselors, marriage and family therapists, and clinical social workers in other states to add a California license.

ASWB greeted the news with enthusiasm because the new law, passed largely through the efforts of the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, aligns closely with an objective in the association’s 2019–2021 Strategic Framework: “Collaborate to protect the public by accepting that the knowledge, skills, and abilities of licensed social workers needed to perform the scope of practice are equivalent across jurisdictions.” That objective is part of the strategic goal of facilitating mobility through licensure by endorsement.

“All of ASWB’s member boards work hard to make sure that social workers become licensed only after a rigorous initial application process,” said Jennifer Henkel, ASWB senior director of member services and strategic initiatives. “Licensure by endorsement honors the hard work of each member board and does not require the secondary state where a social worker is seeking licensure to go through as cumbersome a process.”

“Since we had worked with the stakeholders, we did not encounter any significant challenges in the process.” - Kim Madsen, Executive Officer, California Board of Behavioral Sciences

Changing minds

California’s process serves as a model for successfully changing jurisdictional law. Board members began with adjustments to ways of thinking; it meant shifting perspectives, recognizing differences, trusting other jurisdictions, and acknowledging the common mandate of protecting the public.

In her presentation at the ASWB 2018 Education Conference, “Developing Tools for Social Work Mobility,” Kim Madsen, executive officer of the California board, shared the progress made on the legislation up to that point (June 2018). The current law makes no distinction between applicants for initial licensure and licensees in other states, Madsen said, “…so you want to begin to recognize that there is a difference between the two application types.” She added that all jurisdictions share a desire to make licensure easier, and despite the variations in requirements, “… the one thing that all jurisdictions have in common is that we are here to protect the public.” That shared goal leads to trust, Madsen said. “You need to be able to just be comfortable trusting that jurisdiction that they have done their due diligence in vetting that…applicant.”

Henkel agrees that California’s perspective aligns well with the licensure by endorsement system, which is “based on the understanding that each state licensing board is adept at assessing the components needed to evaluate a social worker to practice safely, ethically, and competently at each category of licensure with complementary scope of practice.”

Collaboration with stakeholders

Once they made the mental adjustments required to move forward with the process, the California board was able to take action. The first concrete step was the creation of a BBS subcommittee that included a licensee from each profession the board regulates. The subcommittee’s first meeting, held in November 2017, was devoted to reviewing existing California requirements, discussing professional association proposals, reviewing the curriculum requirements for program accrediting agencies, and learning about licensure requirements in other states. “During this meeting,” Madsen said, “all quickly agreed that a change was necessary.” The subcommittee’s members recognized that many of California’s requirements for licensed out-of-state applicants amounted to unnecessary barriers that did not improve consumer protection.

Subsequent meetings in February and June 2018 included educators and representatives from the professional associations. Madsen advised attendees at the 2018 Education Conference, “Really consider collaborating with your stakeholders because often I have this really great idea, and they help make it better. A benefit is that they don’t oppose your legislation later, either, so that’s key.” That advice held true in this case.

“Since we had worked with the stakeholders,” Madsen said, “we did not encounter any significant challenges in the process.” The only change made to the bill was the addition of language clarifying that the bill only applied to BBS licensees.

The subcommittee and stakeholders wrote and revised proposed language for the bill. They presented their proposal at a policy and advocacy meeting in August 2018 and to the full board the following month. At that point, Madsen said, “The board directed staff to initiate the legislative process.”

A legislative author

Madsen had created relationships with legislators as she provided feedback on other legislation—”We call it ‘working the halls,’ ” she said—and was able to secure an author for the bill quickly. “My legislative analyst and I approached the members of the Senate Business and Professions Committee, including the chair,” Madsen said. Their first meeting was with Senator Patricia Bates’s office. Senator Bates had served on a commission that reported on barriers on occupational licensing. She immediately contacted the board to offer to author Senate Bill 679. The bill passed the California legislature on September 4, 2019, with no opposition and was signed into law on September 27, 2019.

According to her website, Senator Bates, a former social worker, said of Senate Bill 679, “This bipartisan new law will help boost California’s mental health workforce and provide needed services to more people. I am glad that California has made it easier for many new Californians to practice their chosen profession in our communities.”

Barriers eliminated; essential requirements preserved

The new California law eliminates barriers while preserving essential requirements specific to California. The changes result in a reduction in time and expenses to obtain licensure. “This bill nicely illustrates the flexibility of licensure by endorsement as each state can add additional requirements that make sense in that state,” said Henkel.

For an applicant possessing equivalent licensure for at least two years in another state, the BBS will accept:

  • Substantially equivalent degree program. The degree that the licensee presented at the time of initial licensure is accepted regardless of the number of units. This allows older degree programs to qualify.
  • Supervised work experience hours. The licensee applicant no longer is required to produce evidence of completion of supervised work experience hours.
  • Clinical examination. The licensee applicant’s clinical examination is accepted and the licensee is not required to retake another clinical examination.

The BBS will continue to require:

  • Continuing education coursework in mental health recovery-oriented care and the psychotherapy environment in California to be completed online prior to licensure
  • Passing a California law and ethics exam

The California BBS joins the Arizona Board of Behavioral Health Examiners in having recently accomplished major legislation that eases practice mobility for social workers. Madsen hopes other states will learn from these examples. “This bill is an important step forward in the effort to increase mental health license portability across state lines,” she said, “and we hope that other states will follow our lead.”

As ASWB nears the end of its first year of working to meet the goals of the 2019–2021 Strategic Framework, Henkel is encouraged by recent progress toward social work practice mobility among member boards. “California’s model and that implemented in Arizona continue to place the responsibility of licensure on individual state licensing boards and maintain a state-based licensing system,” she said. “Put simply, licensure by endorsement streamlines the licensing process by allowing social workers to add a second or third license without needing to apply as if they are becoming newly licensed.”