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Complaint: Mental Health Professionals Face 'Horrifying' Wait Times From Maine Licensing Board

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Robert F. Bukaty
/
Associated Press
The Maine State House is seen beyond the leafless trees in the waning weeks of autumn, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Augusta, Maine.

Fifty mental health professionals have sent a letter to the Maine attorney general’s office citing concerns about how long it takes to become licensed, saying applications often take months to be processed. And as the would-be providers wait, so too must their clients, at a time when the demand for mental health services is surging due to the pandemic.

Last summer, Jessica Wallner was finally ready to become a fully licensed clinical counselor. After earning her degree, she had completed a requirement to practice under a supervisor for two years.

Wallner says she applied for her license in late July. But she didn’t receive final approval until a few weeks ago — in February.

“It ended up being a seven-month process. Which included a lot of really confusing communication, a lot of unclear expectations,” she says.

Wallner says when she emailed her professional licensing board with questions about the application, it took weeks to get replies.

“Their request is that you only email or call. And that you do not email or call a second time. But when you’re waiting a month and a half to receive an answer to a question, that gets really hard,” she says.

That has also been the experience for Katie Dolinsky, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minnesota who is originally from Maine and is moving back this month. She says when she first got her license five years ago in Minnesota, the process was quick.

“So I guess I naively assumed it would be the same in another state,” she says.

But when Dolinsky emailed the Board of Counseling Professionals in Maine last October with questions about her application, she says she also waited more than a month for replies. When she managed to find direct emails for members of the board, she says she got rote answers and was discouraged from contacting them.

“Just a lot of like, ‘We’re processing things as quickly as possible.’ ‘We’re processing things in the order that they’re received.’ ‘If you continue to email or call us about this, it will slow down the process,’” she says.

Dolinsky submitted her application in December and is still waiting to hear back. She says she’ll be able to practice temporarily under an emergency license in Maine due to the pandemic. But once the state of emergency is lifted, that option will be gone, and she doesn’t know if she’ll have her state license by then.

The long wait time for licensing, she says, means that there aren’t enough therapists to meet the growing demand.

“This past year has been extremely difficult for so many people in so many ways. Depression, anxiety, relationship issues, kids struggling with suicidal ideation. All of these things are up, and therapists’ caseloads are full,” Dolinsky says.

The licensing problem has prompted the letter to the Maine attorney general’s office which raises concerns that the boards that oversee licenses for counselors, psychologists and social workers are overwhelmed and likely understaffed.

The issue isn’t new, these providers say, but it’s steadily worsened, and they’re asking that licensing boards be given adequate support.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office referred comment to the Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. Commissioner Anne Head said in a written response that health care boards have been processing many more applications than usual, and that the department takes the concerns seriously and will assess options to address them.

Mental health providers in training hope changes come soon as they witness the experiences of their peers.

“It’s horrifying,” says Gabriella Wansker-Kirsch, who is earning her masters in counseling.

Wansker-Kirsch says she’s devoting all of her time to school and a clinical internship, and currently has no income.

“And so I’m budgeting to try to do this. And then thinking about finishing this program, but also not being able to be licensed and generate any income for almost a year is an element that I really didn’t anticipate,” she says.

And the prospect of having to wait to become licensed is especially frustrating, she says, when there’s a seemingly endless need for mental health services.