In February Governor Branstad proposed a bill (HSB-138) to the Iowa House of Representatives that would effectively remove licensure for social workers, along with several other professions, including speech and language pathologists and marriage and family therapists. Less than twelve hours after the bill had been proposed, the Iowa chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) had mobilized by sending out information updates and advocacy suggestions to their members and allies (i.e. the University of Iowa School of Social Work), and contacted the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and various Representatives.
Because of the NASW’s effective communication, Representatives had received thousands of emails and phone calls each by the time the weekend rolled around a few days later. Town halls that had been scheduled in advance to address other issues found themselves flooded with social workers, students, and allies, who ranged from physicians, other health and human service workers, and clients who have been positively impacted by social work.
The bill was declared dead in the subcommittee meeting the following day, due in large part to the work of the Iowa chapter of the NASW. The turnout of concerned citizens at the meeting, the majority of whom were social workers, played a large role in the dismissal of the bill. The Representatives assigned to study the bill were courteous in encouraging all concerned individuals to speak up, and proceeded to listen to over an hour of testimony from professionals about the importance of licensure. I had the opportunity to share my own perspective on the bill with the Representatives, and I chose to advocate directly for the cancer patients I am currently working with as a student at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
The ramifications of delicensing social workers are alarming and numerous. First and foremost, licensing protects the public. In other words, the licensure process is the gatekeeping process that keeps bad practitioners out. Components of being licensed include taking extensive continuing education classes to stay up-to date on best evidence based practice, adhering to the highest code of ethics of any profession, and facing repercussions, including the revoking of one’s licensing, if one does not uphold the profession’s standards.
Licensure also enables individuals to access mental health coverage; insurance companies will not accept billing and reimburse an unlicensed practitioner, as they do not possess credibility in the insurance company’s eyes. Therefore, even if insurance covers mental health visits, such as therapy or counseling, these resources would become inaccessible. Clients would have nowhere to go: only those who could afford to pay out of pocket would be able to receive mental health services.
While Iowa citizens only stand to lose with Governor Branstad’s push to rework and pass through this bill in a repackaged form, he is persistent because it holds personal significance to him. This bill is modeled after a bill written and published by the Americans for Prosperity group (AFP) on their website. AFP is a Koch-brothers funded group that connects state politicians to powerful companies and corporations to brainstorm legislation that the involved politicians can work to pass in their home state. Branstad’s relationship with AFP goes back to the very beginning; in fact, he is a “founding father” of the organization.
It is clear that Governor Branstad’s push to delicense mental health providers has no regard for his constituent’s safety, instead favoring persuasive voices that come calling from outside of Iowa. The potential ramifications of such a move is alarming: after Governor Branstad closed down two of the state’s mental health institutions last summer, the state fell in national rankings to last place for mental health access. Mental health services are the gateway to solutions for many other societal problems: they intertwine with poverty, education, addiction, crime, abuse, health, and community wellbeing.
Social workers and their allies must stand up to protect licensure and the individuals and communities it protects. The day I spent at the state capitol with the NASW was transformative. The director of the Iowa NASW chapter, Denise Rathman, encouraged students to speak up, which empowered me to add my own voice to the conversation. The NASW represents the best parts of social work: advocacy for the vulnerable, evidence and research-informed practice, and an invitation for everyone to participate.
-Victoria “Tori” Johnson is a MSW student at the University of Iowa. You can reach Tori at email@example.com.