License backlog creates ‘crisis’ for employers and people wanting to work

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) — Michelle Thomas was eager to get back into the workforce after taking time off to raise four children.

Last spring, she applied to renew her license to become a family and marriage therapist in Wisconsin, with plans to start a new job in the fall when her children return to school.

“I thought three months seemed like enough time for all the paperwork to be approved,” Thomas said.

After a few weeks, Thomas started having problems checking the status of his application. She was often put on hold for several hours, unable to reach anyone from the state licensing agency, the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS).

“I tried calling at three weeks and no one answered,” Thomas said. “It was getting to the point where I had to set aside an entire day to be ready to jump through all the hoops that needed to be jumped.”

Weeks turned into months. Thomas became one of many stuck in a backlog of DSPS license applications. She had told her employer she could start taking on clients in September, but soon realized that would be impossible without her license to practice.

“In my mind, I wonder if it’s even happening this year? said Thomas. “I have no guarantee that this will happen.”

After six months, Thomas was approved for her license in November. The backlog comes at a time when the health care industry desperately needs workers, but many are stuck waiting months or more to get the credentials needed to start their careers.

Even before the pandemic, DSPS was struggling with staff shortages, outdated processing systems dating back to 1997, and outdated paper applications. An online form is currently in the works, but for now people must submit documents by post.

“We’ve been trying to solve this problem since I arrived, and I realized from day one that we were under-resourced and under-staffed,” said DSPS Secretary Dawn Crim.

Once COVID hit, the agency became even more overwhelmed, Crim said, which caused them to fall even further behind.

More work, fewer resources

The agency has seen an increase in applications. From July 2015 to 2017, the DSPS processed approximately 57,000 license applications. In 2019, it handled nearly 95,500 requests, according to communications director Jennifer Garrett. This represents an increase of approximately 29% from 2017 to 2019.

To date, the DPSP processes an average of approximately 13,280 license applications and renewals per month.

Marc Herstand has worked in the Wisconsin chapter for the National Association of Social Workers for nearly three decades. In recent months, he has received calls from frustrated candidates who cannot get answers from the DSPS.

“I’ve never, ever, ever seen it as bad as the backlog in the last year,” Herstand said. “It’s a terrible crisis we have.”

Long wait times are placing an even greater burden on the struggling health care industry, where providers are already short and stretched thin.

Since the start of the coronavirus, the number of people in need of mental health services has increased. But many people seeking help often face long waiting lists, lack of options and affordable providers, especially in rural parts of the state.

Thomas said she saw it with her own eyes while working at Viroqua in her clinic and at a nearby school where there are a few therapists.

“The delay has felt like it’s slipping through the cracks of those who really need help, but it’s these bureaucratic pieces that are holding everyone back,” Thomas said. “There are people who want to get to work but can’t because of these obstacles.”

The backlog isn’t just a problem in Wisconsin. Investigations by NBC and NPR found similar trends in other states with long delays.

It took nearly two years for Zoe Ellerbusch, a therapist from western Wisconsin, to apply for a license. After working eight years as a school counselor, Ellerbursch wanted to pursue her career but was unaware of new licensing requirements that delayed her application.

When she got her hands on someone at DSPS, Ellerbursch learned she needed more college credit to apply, which cost her more than $12,000 despite having a master’s degree in counseling psychology and experience. working with children.

Ellerbusch said miscommunication led to the agency mistakenly awarding him a license even though his credits were incomplete. She also said employees often told her on the phone that they couldn’t locate her documents.

“I had to wait six weeks just for someone to answer me,” Ellerbursch said. “It is so hard.”

Things have since been resolved, but Ellerbursch said changes were needed at DSPS to reduce the cumbersome process when applying.

“They are overworked and understaffed, but the crazy, bureaucratic demands for specific courses and waiting weeks for an answer was extremely difficult,” she said.

Lawmakers demand solutions

The DSPS delays caught the attention of Republican lawmakers who recently held a committee hearing on March 16 to learn more about its impact on the workforce.

State Representative Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), chairman of the Assembly Licensing Reform Committee, decided to hold the hearing after saying he had heard several complaints to the DSPS from voters and voters. other organizations.

“Between appalling customer service and the refusal to approve provisional licenses or psychology exams, it is clear that there are serious issues with the Governor’s administration of DSPS,” Sortwell said in a statement.

State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee), a Democrat on the committee, criticized Republicans for holding the hearing after lawmakers wrapped up their 2021-2022 floor session and likely won’t return until the year next.

“Far too many Republicans are directly implicated in, or at least complicit in, these attacks on DSPS, denying them the personnel they need to thrive and, in doing so, manufacturing Wisconsin’s current licensing crisis,” Brostoff said.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) testified before the committee after releasing a report, “Backlog: Licensing Delays Keeping People From Entering the Workforce.”

WILL Policy Director Kyle Koenen said he offered suggestions for improving transparency at DSPS, including tools to track the backlog and how long it takes to process applications. But we don’t know how far the backlog goes.

Crim welcomes the recommendations, but said the agency cannot say how long requests take because it uses a manual record-keeping system that lacks the ability to calculate wait times.

“The DSPS can’t even tell us how big the backlog is, so how are lawmakers supposed to make staffing decisions if the DSPS can’t give straight numbers?” said Koenen.

The DSPS authorizes and regulates more than 240 professions. Crim has asked the Republican-controlled Legislature for additional staff and funds to upgrade its process system, but it hasn’t always gotten what it asked for.

When budget negotiations began for the 2021-2023 biennium, Crim requested 10 additional staff members, as well as funding to continue technology upgrades that began under the previous administration.

In the end, the Republican-controlled Legislative Budget Committee awarded two part-timers, one full-timer and $5 million for system upgrades. Crim said she felt ignored by lawmakers.

“It’s hard to build any kind of institutional knowledge, systematic updates and changes on a temporary workforce,” Crim said. “If we have better technology, we can create better solutions. If we have more people, we have more hands on deck.”

Republican lawmakers introduced two bills in the last session targeting licensing in Wisconsin. Senate Bill 469 would automatically recognize the professional licenses of those who move to Wisconsin, but the proposal was never rejected by the committee.

Another bill would allow those who meet the requirements for a license to apply for interim licenses pending final approval. The bill passed the Senate in January, but was never called for a vote in the Assembly.

Governor Tony Evers signed AB 218, a bipartisan bill that gives DSPS tools to work directly with credentialing boards to expedite the application process. Once an application is complete, the board is required to make a decision within 10 days or the application will be automatically approved under the new law.

Ongoing improvements

Since the backlog began, DSPS has taken steps to improve the application process by removing confusing language on the website, and will launch a self-guided online application next month to replace paper forms.

Crim hopes these changes will speed up processing times and ease the burden on its six employees who work in the call center.

For Thomas, she is also optimistic and hopes things will get better so others don’t have to go through what she went through.

“I’m glad DSPS admits there is a problem,” Thomas said. “I feel like it could have been an easier process.”

Maria D. Ervin