Allow out-of-state counselors to offer online therapy

It is winter. The days are short, the weather is cold and COVID-19 seems to be everywhere. We are fast approaching two years of pandemic disruption and isolation. More New Yorkers than ever are seeking mental health professionals.

But state resources are scarce. In the past 10 years, the number of employees in the State Office for Mental Health has fallen by more than 16 percent. Nationwide, nine out of 10 therapists say the number of patients seeking care is increasing.

And there’s no sign of demand slowing anytime soon. Almost half of adults in the United States reported that COVID has damaged their mental health, meaning they may be seeking help soon. Demand for mental health professionals will continue to grow in the coming months, and New Yorkers already have limited options.

But New York State is standing in the way of residents looking to find a psychiatrist online. Only state-licensed therapists in New York are allowed to offer online counseling to New Yorkers.

That means Elizabeth Brokamp, ​​a licensed and experienced counselor based outside of Washington, DC, and a graduate of Columbia University, cannot offer online counseling. If a patient moves to the state, she must sever her relationship. And if someone from New York could approach her for her specific experience, like pregnancy or childbirth counseling, she has to turn them down.

Elizabeth was interested in teletherapy long before video conferencing was widely available. Today she works from home and sees all her patients online. For Elizabeth, teletherapy isn’t just about making her life easier. She has found it particularly beneficial for clients who are mothers and who might otherwise need to organize childcare to schedule a consultation. Teletherapy has worked so well that Elizabeth has no intention of ever going back to an office.

But could it pose a risk to patients for counselors to offer out-of-state therapies? The answer is a clear no”. New York effectively admitted there is nothing dangerous when it suspended its licensing requirements for 16 months during the pandemic. But in June this year, the state declined to continue the exemption without comment.

Elizabeth doesn’t wait for New York lawmakers to come to their senses. All she does is talk to customers, and talking — whether for your job or not — is protected by the First Amendment. And in New York, people like Elizabeth only get licensed because of their education and expertise. If she had no training, she could offer her services as an unlicensed “life coach”. But because she has degrees and a license in another state, if she offers therapy to a New Yorker, she could be prosecuted for unlicensed practice.

Elizabeth, representing the Institute for Justice, sued the state in federal court earlier this year. Her case is currently before the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals.

Even after the COVID crisis is over, the mental health crisis will continue. Blocking the doors on qualified consultants like Elizabeth only makes things worse. All she — and many other therapists across the country — wants to do is talk to clients online and give them the help they need to get through the challenges in their lives. It is counterproductive and unconstitutional for New York to stand in their way.

Jeffrey Redfern, of Washington, DC, is an attorney with the Institute for Justice, a non-profit, public interest law firm dedicated to promoting freedom of speech nationwide.

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