Online squabble opens eyes – APA’s practice assessment not mandatory

By James Bradshaw, Senior Editor
July 1, 2010 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

A flap on listservs of the APA that stretched from late March into early May revealed – to the surprise of many – that the “required” practice assessment is not mandatory for practitioners to maintain APA membership.

The brouhaha was fueled largely by questions from Timothy R. Tumlin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Darien, Ill., after a posting March 27 by Donna Rasin-Waters, Ph.D., federal advocacy coordinator for Division 12, the Society of Clinical Psychology.

Rasin-Waters, who is also president-elect of the New York State Psychological Association, posted a notice that those not paying the assessment would no longer receive action alerts from the APA Practice Organization (APAPO) because of tax law restrictions.

She encouraged practitioners to “consider paying the APAPO practice assessment fee” to support advocacy efforts of practice.

Tumlin, who told The National Psychologist he has not paid the assessment for about three years, posted a response asking if that meant the assessments were voluntary rather than mandatory.

The APA website lists the 2010 assessment as $137 for practitioners not qualifying for reductions, such as those given early career members, and states “Licensed APA members who provide health or mental health services or supervise those who do are required (emphasis added) to pay the Practice Assessment …”

Several members of the listserv responded to Tumlin’s question, explaining that the assessment was separate from APA dues and was used only to support efforts of the Practice Organization.

Not feeling his question had been answered definitively, Tumlin persisted, repeatedly demanding assurance from those in leadership that the assessment was in fact voluntary.

APA’s past president, James H. Bray, Ph.D., was among those responding as the exchange dragged on to the point that at least eight persons asked to be removed from the listserv rather than be bothered with the almost daily point/counterpoint arguments over whether members had intentionally been misled to believe the assessment was mandatory.

E-mail exchanges and postings became heated on listservs of Division 12 and other practice divisions. Some began referring to the flap as “Fee-gate” and labeled APA a Byzantine organization that should be awarded “the Goldman Sachs 2010 Deception Award” for perpetuating the belief through decades of changes of leadership that the assessments were mandatory.

It became apparent that many if not most practitioners thought they were required to pay the assessment to maintain APA membership. An unofficial canvas of psychologists by The National Psychologist confirmed that even some who had held high office in APA thought the assessment was mandatory.

On April 27, Katherine C. Nordal, Ph.D., executive director of the Practice Organization, made a posting on the listserv, noting that leadership had “become aware” of traffic inquiring about the assessment.

Nordal said the APAPO was formed in 2001 to provide support for practicing psychologists that APA could not address because of its “more restrictive tax status.”

She said while neither APA nor APAPO enforce the assessments “APAPO’s survival depends on these payments from members” and without them many vital efforts and services could not be maintained.

On May 5 the APA/APAPO board of directors issued a statement on the assessment, explaining that when it was inaugurated in 1985 the “special assessment” for licensed health care professionals was a “mandatory assessment” to fund additional advocacy efforts on behalf of practitioners.

As the need for broader advocacy efforts developed, the Practice Organization was created as a legally separate entity to permit actions forbidden the APA under federal tax rules, such as lobbying efforts.

At that point, the “special assessment” became the “practice assessment” which APA collects for the Practice Organization. The board statement notes: “Practitioners who pay the practice assessment (and the majority do) are members of both APA and APAPO.”

The statement also noted that membership was never terminated or denied an APA member who failed to pay either the original “mandatory” special assessment or the “required” practice assessment.

“Those practitioners who do not pay the practice assessment benefit nonetheless from the work of APAPO,” the statement said, adding, “Fortunately, most licensed psychologists who provide health care services pay the practice assessment to support the advocacy activities that benefit all practitioners.”

Advocacy efforts credited to APAPO were listed as gaining improvements in federal law, including full mental health parity, protecting reimbursement rates both in the public and private sector, supporting successful lawsuits against abusive managed care practices and protecting the doctoral degree as the standard for licensure.

The statement encouraged practitioners to pay the assessment to support the work of the Practice Organization but promised that beginning next year instructions with the annual dues statements will clarify that the assessment is not tied to APA membership.

Tumlin told The National Psychologist he approves many of the efforts of the Practice Organization but withheld paying the assessment in hopes someone in leadership would ask him why he was doing so and he could express his disapproval of the amount of time and resources APAPO devotes to expanding prescription authority for psychologists while only a small minority of members seek RxP authorization.

He said he does not see himself as a principal in the furor over whether there was intentional deception on the part of APA leadership. “I simply asked a question … and expressed the same reaction that many of my colleagues have, some of them more vociferously than I have.”

Randy Phelps, Ph.D., deputy executive director of the Practice Organization, clarified the structure of the APAPO and its relationship to APA, which he conceded is “a little complicated.”

While the two organizations are legally separate, Phelps said the same members who compose the APA board of directors make up the APAPO board. They simply meet separately to consider Practice Organization matters, Phelps said.

The Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice (CAPP) has day-to-day oversight of APAPO on behalf of the board and its members are elected by the APA Council of Representatives.

Phelps said APAPO’s RxP initiatives are funded from contributions from supporters of RxP to special fundraising efforts and grant funds awarded to state associations from APAPO’s operating budget.

About 58,000 APA members were billed for the practice assessment in 2010. Phelps said more than three-fourths renewed their APA memberships and of those who did, 80 percent paid the practice assessment.

Of those not paying the assessment, he said most – about 6,500 – were exempt because they are not engaged in providing health care services. “Only about 2,000 chose to simply not pay the assessment,” Phelps said.

The 2010 APAPO operating budget is $4,948,000.

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