Pathways to portability and mobility

Dale Atkinson is a partner with the Illinois law firm that is counsel to ASWB.
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Technological advances have allowed social work practice to occur without physical presence (i.e., electronic practice), further placing pressure on the portability and mobility of practitioners. This article will discuss options for addressing practitioner mobility and virtual practice, along with the enactment of recent U.S. federal legislation mandating interstate recognition of professional licensure for military personnel and spouses. To get started, certain terms must be defined. Mobility refers to the physical and virtual movement of social workers across state and, perhaps, international lines. Portability refers to the credential (license) itself and whether it “follows” the licensee into those additional jurisdictions. Does the credential follow the licensee or, alternatively, must the new jurisdiction issue an additional license to authorize lawful practice?

Counsel's column

The regulatory community must consider and embrace models used to address social work practice through technology and otherwise.

Reciprocity refers to an agreement wherein contracting jurisdictions are obligated to issue a license to each other’s licensees. In today’s times, true reciprocity agreements do not exist in  professional licensure. However, this term is consistently used in the context of endorsement processes. Endorsement denotes a specific statute that authorizes a state to license persons already licensed elsewhere if the initial license was issued under similar criteria. Thus, the state will assess whether the prior state’s licensure requirements are substantially similar to those in the state where the licensee has applied. Endorsement statutes are prevalent in professional licensure. As referenced, the terms reciprocity and endorsement are unfortunately used interchangeably in discussions and judicial opinions despite their significant differences.

A licensure recognition system across state lines, referred to as a compact, has recently become more common in state-based licensure. Although the concept and use of compacts is not a new phenomenon, there has been significant movement to promote a compact system for professional licensure. A compact is a statute enacted verbatim in multiple jurisdictions that creates an agreement to allow practice in all states that enact the compact legislation.

To illustrate, a practitioner obtains a license in the home state, which is generally defined as the the practitioner’s state of residence. If the licensee elects to obtain a compact license in that home state, they are granted the privilege to practice in all compact states. That privilege is conditioned upon maintaining the home state license in good standing. The loss of licensure in the home state automatically results in the loss of practice privileges in the remote state(s). Each compact state (home and remote) has the authority to independently investigate and take an adverse action as determined necessary to protect the residents of the respective state. The compact is administered by a commission made up of representatives from all participating states.

In conjunction with the Council of State Governments, ASWB has developed and finalized a social work licensure compact, and it is ready for enactment.

In addition to the above options, the federal government recently enacted legislation to support military personnel and their spouses. The Veterans Auto and Education Improvement Act was signed into law on January 6, 2023. Known as Public Law No. 117-333, the Act, among other things, mandates state recognition of professional licenses of military personnel and spouses (eligible licensee) when that service member or spouse relocates because of military orders. For example, when an eligible licensee duly licensed in Arizona is relocated to New Mexico due to military orders, New Mexico is required to recognize the Arizona license for purposes of authorization to practice. The practitioner must agree to abide by the scope of practice imposed by New Mexico law, as well as submit to the jurisdiction of the New Mexico board and its authority to impose adverse actions, require continuing education, and carry out other powers. The federal law does not outline how to handle a more expansive — rather than more limited  —  scope of practice in New Mexico.

Eligible licensees must provide a copy of the military orders to the board in the jurisdiction they are moving into and must maintain the original license in good standing. Good standing is not defined and is likely left to the state issuing the license to determine. Further, the eligible licensee must have actively used that license during the two years immediately preceding the relocation orders. The eligible licensee submits to the jurisdiction of the relocation state and that board has the authority to investigate and render final rulings on the status of practice privileges in the additional state. Further, the Act notes that any applicable compacts take precedence over this Act. This legislation covers all professional licenses and certificates except for the practice of law. Thus, social work boards and licensees are within the purview of this legislation.

The legislative history of this Act references the significant movement of military personnel and their spouses and identifies the inefficiencies of the state-based licensure systems. Indeed, the history indicates that more than 20 percent of military personnel and spouses who relocated under military orders waited more than 10 months for licensure. These delays are legitimate causes for concern about the efficiency of state-based licensure systems, regardless of who is applying. Regulators must do a better job.

The legal authority of the federal government to mandate interstate licensure recognition outside of the veteran’s system (i.e., the  U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) may be subject to a legal challenge. ASWB will continue to monitor this recent legislation and keep its membership informed.

Mobility and portability are here to stay, and the regulatory community must consider and embrace models used to address social work practice through technology and otherwise.