In fulfilling its charge to develop proposals for additions or changes to the Model Social Work Practice Act, RAS Committee members will be considering how social work regulation is affected by emergencies such as the current pandemic. Although this public health emergency is unprecedented, regulators need to consider how emergency provisions affect public protection in general. For example, have emergency orders from governors or premiers highlighted barriers to licensing that need to be removed permanently? Are states and provinces learning new tools for communicating with licensees and the public? Do emergency electronic practice provisions provide adequate public protection? If they do, should they be implemented permanently?
Member Services and Strategic Initiatives Senior Director Jennifer Henkel says the RAS Committee will be driving the work, with the current provisions as a starting point, and soliciting information from ASWB member boards.
None of these questions is completely new, but the scale of this pandemic is bringing them to the forefront. Previous disasters tended to affect clusters of states or provinces, such as Hurricane Katrina, which sent thousands of Louisiana residents out of the state, mostly into neighboring states. Hurricane Maria resulted in thousands of Puerto Rico residents migrating to the mainland, often settling in states with existing Puerto Rican communities such as New York, Florida, and Massachusetts.
The COVID-19 emergency, by contrast, sent thousands of college students home. Many moved across the country, as their campuses closed on short notice. “As regulators, we may be forcing social workers to choose between client abandonment and unlicensed practice” when evacuations or stay-at-home orders conflict with electronic practice regulations, Henkel says.
Many jurisdictions have good Samaritan laws that protect health care practitioners from lawsuits in emergency situations, but how those laws affect professional licensing is ambiguous. Some jurisdictions specify in their statutes that practitioners licensed elsewhere may practice in emergency situations, although the reporting requirements and time limits vary. Notably, those provisions may apply only to volunteers–not social workers being paid to provide services.
How the committee’s review will affect the Model Social Work Practice Act remains to be seen, Henkel says. “This situation is raising a lot of questions, but how these emergency provisions function may be showing us new ways of approaching regulation.”