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Rule change means more help for addicts

MONTPELIER — In what he called a sign of progress in combating the opioid crisis, Gov. Phil Scott announced this past Monday, Oct. 16, that the state has moved to bolster the ranks of substance abuse counselors by paring back the licensing requirements.
The move was spurred by legislators’ recommendations to the Office of Professional Regulation after hearing that the state’s arcane rules were hindering qualified counselors from landing jobs here, said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison.
“We heard testimony from people who said, ‘You have no idea how hard it is to get a license in this state,’” Ayer said Monday. “It’s just so complicated, and it didn’t need to be.”
Even the names of classes that professionals had taken could present a roadblock under the rules, Ayer said.
“The way it was written, it was so specific that the name of a course could disqualify somebody, even if the subject of the course was the same” as an approved course, Ayer said.
Ayer chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which she said forwarded a request to OPR Director Colin Benjamin that he simplify the licensing requirements for mental health professionals, especially substance abuse counselors.
In just five months, Scott said last week, the number of pages of rules governing licensing for substance abuse counselors was trimmed from 31 to 10.
The move will make it easier to get licensed as substance abuse counselors, but “without any loss of public protection whatsoever,” said Benjamin.
Vermont has about 360 substance abuse counselors, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Scott said he’d heard “somewhat anecdotal” estimates that there’s a shortage of 100 to 200 of them in the state. None of the 20 or so officials who attended Scott’s Oct. 16 announcement gave a number for how many more the state needs.
Scott termed this shortage a “substance use disorder workforce crisis” in literature promoting the event in Montpelier.
Benjamin said he expects the reduction in substance abuse counselors’ licensing requirements to “yield results immediately.” He declined to say how long it would take before the regulatory reduction would attract the additional counselors Scott estimated the state needs.
Ayer, who is a registered nurse, said she had read the streamlined rule and that it would not diminish the level of care patients receive.
“We were specific: We did not want to lower standards,” she said.
The Office of Professional Regulation is within the secretary of state’s office. The revisions were done under an emergency rulemaking authority, Secretary of State Jim Condos said.
The emergency rule will remain in effect for no more than 120 days while undergoing the usual review process by lawmakers in order to become permanent.

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