ST. MATTHEWS — For nearly 20 years, Glenn D. Williams has been a professional Christian mental health counselor, helping people with problems such as marital difficulties, addictions and depression.
Beginning Tuesday, the state will start licensing Williams and the 30 or so other professional mental and behavioral health counselors in Kentucky who also are pastors. They will be called Kentucky licensed pastoral counselors, and their work will be covered by insurance policies for those who desire faith-based mental health services.
"It's an opportunity for better mental health counseling," said state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington. "This will help Kentucky's shortage of mental and behavioral health service providers, which has been augmented by the federal Affordable Care Act's requirement that Medicaid and insurance companies on the health exchange offer mental and behavioral health benefits."
Kerr successfully spearheaded legislation in this year's Kentucky General Assembly to allow the licensing of professional faith-based counselors.
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The legislation, Senate Bill 61, and more than 100 other new laws approved by state lawmakers and Gov. Steve Beshear take effect Tuesday.
Under SB 61, pastoral counselors must hold a master of pastoral counseling degree, in addition to the same qualifications as other licensed counselors, Kerr said. Those requirements include a master's degree in counseling, 1,375 hours of supervised practice, and 250 hours of clinical work and supervision. They also must pass a written board exam.
"Of course, any parishioner can now go and seek advice from his or her pastor, but we are talking about a professional degree," said the senator.
Kerr said her legislation sailed through the legislature with no concerns raised by insurance companies or others, but the chairman of the Kentucky Board of Licensed Professional Counselors said he was taking a wait-and-see approach to the new law.
Martin Cortez Wesley said he was concerned the public would confuse licensed professional counselors with licensed pastoral counselors.
"Our term is commonly used throughout the country for professional counselors and not pastoral counselors," said Wesley, dean of the School of Counseling at the University of Cumberlands.
"There are about 2,000 of us and about 30 of them," he said. "We do not want the desire of a very few to trump the current practice of thousands of our licensees. We will have to see how all this works out."
Kentucky will become the sixth state to license pastoral counselors. The others are Arkansas, Maine, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Williams, who is chair of the Kentucky Association of Pastoral Counselors and works at St. Matthews Pastoral Counseling in Jefferson County, said the new law would help increase the number of mental health providers in Kentucky and provide wage increases for them.
Williams said his normal hourly rate for a counseling session is $30, but he adjusts the rate based on a client's income. Sometimes it's as low as $2, he said. He handles about 18 to 20 clients a week.
Though he is labeled a faith-based counselor, Williams said his clients included agnostics, atheists and people of different religions.
He said it was not his intention to get his clients to join St. Matthews Baptist Church, which provides space for the counseling offices and funding for low-income clients.
"I have never had that conversation with a client," he said. "Clients have joined our church from time to time, but that is on their initiative, not ours. There is clearly no expectation on our part that they do so."
Matthews also said he does not always use the Bible and prayer in treating people.
"That depends upon the client," he said.
He said recent surveys show that 90 percent of Americans consider religion very or fairly important.
"The consideration of a client's religion is increasingly seen as a vital component of therapeutic assessment and intervention in addressing mental and behavioral problems," he said.