Oklahoma counselors fear policy will harm care quality

BY SONYA COLBERG Modified: March 1, 2010 at 2:43 pm •  Published: February 28, 2010

Donna Woods rocked and sobbed, trying to find courage.

She considered herself a sorry drunk and methamphetamine addict and an even sorrier mother. Her hand shook as she held the pistol up to her head. She fired once and missed.

"I pulled that trigger again. I missed again,” she said.

With that turning point 15 years ago, she got extensive help from drug and alcohol counselors and began helping other substance abusers.

But now such counselors face proposed regulations that could limit their services and reduce substance abusers’ access to counseling, Woods said.

"It’s a matter of life and death. How many people will die because of these decisions?” said Woods, executive director of Oklahoma Citizen Advocates for Recovery and Treatment Association. "I’ve got people crying on the phone, ‘Please help me!’ How can I help if I have no place to put them?”

The state’s 900 certified counselors and counselors in training would be required to get a master’s degree to provide those services. They currently need a bachelor’s degree.

Larry Gaines, with Norman Addiction Information and Counseling, called the plan disastrous.

Like many certified counselors, Gaines battled his own addictions and then decided to help other substance abusers. He’s now in his 27th year of counseling drug and alcohol abusers, but figures he’ll probably retire rather than going for his master’s degree.

"If they go through with this deal, it will really hurt alcoholics and addicts. People won’t have a place to get services and there’s already not enough facilities to get the services. If this passes, it will be devastating to all the communities,” he said.

About $17 million in budget cuts already have closed more than 195 beds used for substance abuse and mental health patients. More cuts are expected.

In light of those cuts, diminishing experienced counselors’ services doesn’t make a lot of sense, said Andy Dean, a former client of Norman Addiction Information and Counseling.

He said substance abusers like to polish up a lie and use it to gain the sympathy of a counselor. But the farce usually won’t sneak past someone who’s been an abuser.

"I think a master’s degree is great. However, if you don’t have any experience, yourself, in substance abuse to be able to identify when a client is being honest and when a client is in denial ... I don’t think you can learn that at a university at any level,” Dean said.

Experience, education
But the idea is simply to raise state standards and ensure therapists have a master’s degree, while preserving services to substance abusers, said Terri White, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services commissioner.

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