Therapist ethics bill dropped in favor of broader legislation

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jack Johnson is dropping a bill mandating a new code of ethics for counselors and instead backing a broader bill that will cover other professions, reports the Times-Free Press.

Johnson, R-Franklin, had stirred controversy by introducing SB1, which basically followed up on a law enacted in 2016 that allows licensed counselors and therapists to opt out of serving clients whose goals were at odds with a professional’s ‘sincerely held principles.’

Instead of pushing for a new state-written code of conduct and ethics for the Tennessee Counseling Association… Johnson… throwing his support to a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown. (SB449)

Their bill would require dozens of state professional associations that adopt codes of practice, often fashioned at the national level and enforced by state-created boards, to come under the state’s Uniform Administrative Procedures Act. There the codes would be reviewed by state lawmakers.

… (Senate Government Operations Chairman) Bell said he began “looking at this more from a global perspective and how we can make sure first that — I don’t want to go through the fight that we went through last year that Sen. Johnson and Rep. Howell passed. I’d much rather this be done in an orderly way.”

Bell said his panel and its House counterpart already provide such order and “can review guidelines, codes of ethics and rules or regulations.”

Note: Press release and a critical comment from Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris are below.

News release from Senate Republican Caucus

NASHVILLE — Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chairman Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Representative Dan Howell (R-Georgetown) held a press conference today to announce the introduction of new legislation to ensure transparency, full vetting and public input regarding “guides to practice” for all licensed professions in Tennessee.

Guides to practice include the professions’ codes of ethics, voluntary certification programs and other professional measures that establish service quality standards in Tennessee.

Johnson said as a result of the proposed legislation, he will not pursue passage of Senate Bill 1 that would have required the State Board of Professional Counselors to promulgate their own code of ethics to be used for licensure requirements. Presently, the state automatically accepts the code of ethics from a private organization headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia.

“This legislation is a better approach which treats all professionals equally,” said Sen. Johnson. “It ensures that transparency and public input are part of the process and provides that Tennesseans are in charge of the rules and code of ethics that govern all of our professions. I am happy to join Senator Bell and Representative Howell as a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 449.”

SB449 requires all professions which adopt guides to practice to promulgate rules subject to the state’s Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (UAPA). Any rules or code of ethics developed or approved by a private organization or association must be adopted in accordance with the proposed law. The bill also prescribes that guides to practice changes must be adopted in accordance with UAPA procedures.

Sen. Bell added, “This legislation treats everyone fairly. It not only ensures that Tennesseans are responsible for governing our own professions, but that the rules or code of ethics are fully vetted and that Tennesseans have an opportunity to weigh in on the rules that govern them. The vetting includes a review by the State Attorney General.”

Rep. Howell said, “The focus of this bill is to simply ensure that the laws in Tennessee are passed by those who are elected by the people of Tennessee. “If trade organizations, associations and various groups located outside Tennessee change their rules that are imposed upon members in Tennessee, those rules would have to go through the legislative process like any other promulgated rule.”

Under the UAPA, a hearing on the rules to formally adopt a code of ethics is generally held by the department of state government which governs the profession. The rules must be filed with the Secretary of State. The rules draft is reviewed by the State Attorney General to determine its legality and constitutionality before moving forward to a hearing by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Government Operations where the public has an opportunity to comment. If approved there, the rule has the force and effect of law. All rules must finally be approved by the full House of Representatives and Senate in the omnibus rules bill which is considered each year.

Statement from Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris

NASHVILLE – Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris released the following statement on Senate Bill 449:

“Today is a great day for people who believe that everyone should have the same access to counseling services, regardless of whether they are LGBT or not,” Sen. Harris said. “I want to congratulate the citizens, the organizations and the clergy who worked to make sure everyone can see a counselor no matter who they love.”

“Unfortunately, the new bill could be more troublesome and unwieldy than the first one. We should be troubled by something that adds unnecessary bureaucracy and sets up new hurdles for working professionals. The members of these professions just want to do their jobs without having to unnecessarily worry about interference from government.”


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