Tuesday, August 17, 1999

State of Hawaii

Auditor cautions
against regulating
some counselors

Higa says mental health
and rehab jobs pose little
risk of consumer harm

By Pat Omandam


The state should not regulate mental health and rehabilitation counselors, says state Auditor Marion Higa.

Higa, in an analysis of these occupations requested by the Legislature, yesterday said regulation of these professional counselors in Hawaii is not warranted because the jobs pose little risk of serious harm to consumers.

Moreover, it may raise the cost for these services for consumers.

"Regulation, we found, would benefit practitioners more than consumers," Higa said in her report released yesterday.

Hawaii law says professions and vocations should be regulated only when necessary to protect the health, safety or welfare of consumers. Higa said state agencies contacted by her office received minimal consumer complaints against mental health counselors, rehabilitation counselors or persons performing related work under different titles, such as social workers, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists and occupational therapists.

Higa said the findings show limited evidence of harm, which echoes the findings of six previous reports.

This past session, two bills dealing with licensing of these counselors were introduced but did not make it past their first initial committee hearings.

Mental health counselors help people deal with emotional problems, addictions, substance abuse, stress, educational decisions and career concerns, as well as family, parenting and marital problems. Rehabilitation counselors help people deal with personal, social and vocational effects of their disabilities, which result from birth defects, disease, accidents or stress.

Higa found clinical mental health counselors usually have a master's degree while only some rehabilitation counselors have graduate degrees.

Higa said any potential harm from the occupation comes not from a lack of competency but from unethical actions, such as fraud, sexual abuse and financial irresponsibility. Also, she said, state regulatory officials do not have the capacity to assess and assure competency, which is the basic focus of regulation,

Finally, charging fees sufficient to cover the state's costs of regulating these fields could raise the costs of services to consumers and unnecessarily restrict entry into the occupations, she said.

House Health Chairman Alex Santiago (D, Pupukea) said the auditor's report gives lawmakers something to take back to the professionals and advocates for licensing. They will have to deal with her objections point by point before any bill to license these occupations moves ahead, he said.

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