Tennessee bill would put all state-regulated professions' ethics codes under review

FILE - Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley speaks with reporters in his office inside the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Md., in this April 7, 2014 file photo. O'Malley was returning to Iowa on Saturday, July 26, 2014 headlining a fundraiser for state Sen. Rita Hart in Clinton, a town on the banks of the Mississippi River, and another event in North Liberty for Kevin Kinney, a Johnson County sheriff's deputy seeking an open state Senate seat. After a Saturday night speech in Omaha to help the Nebraska Democratic Party, O’Malley was joining with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch, who is challenging Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, for fundraisers in western Iowa on Sunday and a canvassing kickoff in Sioux City. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
photo Tennessee state Sen. Jack Johnson

NASHVILLE - A Tennessee lawmaker is dropping his planned follow-up to a controversial 2016 bill, now state law, that allowed licensed counselors and therapists to opt out of serving clients whose goals were at odds with a professional's 'sincerely held principles.'

Instead of pushing for a new state-written code of conduct and ethics for the Tennessee Counseling Association, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, is throwing his support to a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown.

Their bill would require dozens of state professional associations that adopt codes of practice, often fashioned at the national level and enforced by state-created boards, to come under the state's Uniform Administrative Procedures Act.

There the codes would be reviewed by state lawmakers.

Passage of last year's bill drew heated opposition from the American Counseling Association and the Tennessee Counseling Association. Johnson, whose bill was sponsored by Howell in the House, said he brought it at the request of a counselor who was concerned about a new federal requirement of the Affordable Care Act.

The requirement said counselors had to stay with clients whose lifestyle goals were at odds with their own.

State and national LGBTQ organizations, as well as the state and national counselors' groups, charged it allowed discrimination, which could be especially harmful to under-legal-age clients, along with others in crisis, especially people living in rural areas with few, if any, options.

The counselors' bill passed over objections and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Several groups, including the ACA, canceled planned national conventions in Tennessee in protest. So did some cities as well as the state of California, which barred government-funded travel to states its officials believe discriminate against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transexuals.

Bell - chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, which has oversight over the rules and regulations of various departments and agencies - and Howell have introduced a bill bringing various groups' codes of conduct before his committee.

While many already come before government operations committees, a number of them don't, Bell said at a Wednesday news conference with Howell and Johnson.

Bell said he began "looking at this more from a global perspective and how we can make sure first that - I don't want to go through the fight that we went through last year that Sen. Johnson and Rep. Howell passed. I'd much rather this be done in an orderly way."

Bell said his panel and its House counterpart already provide such order and "can review guidelines, codes of ethics and rules or regulations."

He said the bill "will just say that all professions in the state of Tennessee that are licensed, recognized by the state of Tennessee, when they make changes they will all go through this same process."

That includes a hearing before the department under which the professional board operates with an opportunity for public input. After that it would go to the Tennessee attorney general's office, with the attorney general having to sign off on its constitutionality before coming to the Government Operations Committee, Bell said.

Members of a profession - Bell cited physical therapists as an example - as well as the public at large could show up at the legislative hearing to state their support or objections and "have input to those particular changes," the chairman said.

"I thought it was a better approach to not single one group out but treat everyone the same," Bell added.

Howell said that "what we're doing is really closing a loophole that in the past has allowed organizations, institutions located outside the state of Tennessee, to pass guides to practice, in effect, rules and laws that are automatically put in place."

He said "we believe that the lawmakers elected by the people are the ones who should have oversight and pass the laws in the state of Tennessee when they impact Tennesseans. We're just basically closing the loophole to make sure that happens moving forward."

Lisa Henderson, incoming president of the Tennessee Counseling Association, applauded Johnson's decision to abandon his follow-up effort to last year's law and zero in on the group's policy yet again.

"What we resisted last year was singling out one piece of our code," Henderson said. "We didn't agree with having one part of our code struck down. We wanted to have the freedom to adapt the code as we saw fit."

As for Bell and Howell's effort this year to extend legislative review to all professional associations' codes of conduct or ethics, Henderson said "if it's necessary for our board, then it's necessary for all boards. So that's what we're happy about. But we do see a big difference in what happened last year and the bills of this year."

But Henderson said counselors still hold "that it is best for our code of ethics to be overseen by members of our profession. There are some incredible nuances that take years, years of training to understand and grasp and decades of practice to validate and verify."

During last year's debate, counselors argued that professionals are trained to set aside their personal views. Johnson and Howell, as well as other supporters of their bill, questioned why anyone would want to see a professional for help whose goals were at odds with theirs.

A provision in the 2016 law does make allowances for emergency situations and also requires the counselor wishing to end a professional relationship with a client to ensure the person is appropriately referred to another professional and not simply left in the lurch during a crisis.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter at @AndySher1.