Regulatory Hurdles Lead To Shortage Of Substance Abuse Counselors

Oct 16, 2017

As substance abuse treatment agencies struggle to find qualified workers, state officials are trying to make it easier to become an alcohol and drug counselor in Vermont.

Kurt White is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor with an odd side hobby.

“It might be that not everyone enjoys reading administrative rules as much as I do,” White says.

White’s expertise in the arcane regulations governing his profession has made him something of a guru at the Brattleboro Retreat, where he works. And colleagues hoping to earn their counseling license often seek out his guidance.

But White says even people with master’s degrees and thousands of hours of training can have trouble navigating the licensing bureaucracy.

“And I would think, this is too hard,” White says. “It’s too hard for people who are trying to give their lives to serving the population that really needs it most in our state.”

Which is why White and other addiction-treatment specialists were at the Statehouse Monday to celebrate overhauls to the administrative rules that cover who gets to work as a drug and alcohol counselor in Vermont.

"What we've done is taken a hard look at where we could reduce the red tape, get rid of the red tape, without lessening quality." — Colin Benjamin, Office of Professional Regulation

“What we’ve done is taken a hard look at where we could reduce the red tape, get rid of the red tape, without lessening quality,” says Colin Benjamin, the director of the Office of Professional Regulation at the secretary of state’s office.

The duty of regulating and licensing alcohol and drug counselors fell to Benjamin’s office about a year ago. He says the old regulations were full of unnecessary bureaucratic requirements that didn't have any bearing on a person’s ability to do the job effectively.

The new rules fix that, Benjamin says. For example, they broaden the types of professionals that a person can train under, while they’re developing their counseling skills. It also makes it easier to comply with continuing education requirements.

Gov. Phil Scott fast-tracked the changes, which are going into place immediately.

“And it reflects the sense of urgency we feel in addressing opioid addiction. In Vermont … it is truly a public health crisis,” Scott says.

Health officials say the state could use at least another 100 drug and alcohol counselors. Addison County Sen. Claire Ayer, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, says the bureaucratic hoops in Vermont have been particularly vexing for counselors looking to transfer their license from another state.

“It’s been discouraging for people who inquire about coming here for work to find out they don’t have the right criteria, that they’ll have to go back to school,” Ayer says.

Ayer, whose committee held hearings on the issue earlier this year, says she hopes the changes will ease the counselor shortage.

“We’ve added criteria over the years that now are just too confusing and cobbled together,” Ayer says. “And this is an effort to streamline them.”