Licensing backlog creating a 'crisis' for employers and those eager to work

NOW: Licensing backlog creating a ’crisis’ for employers and those eager to work

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) --Michelle Thomas was eager to get back into the workforce after taking some 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 kids go back to school.

"I figured three months seems like ample time for all the papers to get approved," Thomas said.

After a few weeks, Thomas began experiencing problems checking on her application status. She was often on hold for several hours, unable to get through to someone at the state's licensure agency, the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS).

"I tried to call 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 prepared to jump through any hoops that needed to be jumped through."

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

"In my mind, I'm like is this even happening this year?" said Thomas. "I have no guarantees that this is going to happen."

After six months, Thomas was approved for her license in November. The backlog comes at a time when the health care industry is in desperate need of workers, yet many are stuck waiting months or longer to get the necessary credentials to start their careers.

Even before the pandemic, DSPS was struggling with staffing shortages, outdated processing systems dating back to 1997, and antiquated paper applications. An online form is currently in the works, but for now people have to submit paperwork through the mail.

"We have been trying to solve this issue since I arrived, and I realized from day one that we were under-resourced and understaffed," DSPS Secretary Dawn Crim said.

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

More Work, Less Resources

The agency has seen an uptick in applications. From July 2015-2017, DSPS processed about 57,000 license applications. By 2019, it was processing closer to 95,500 applications, according to communications director Jennifer Garrett. That's about a 29% increase from 2017 to 2019.

As of today, DPSP is averaging about 13,280 license applications and renewals per month.

Marc Herstand has been working at the Wisconsin Chapter for the National Association of Social Workers for nearly three decades. Over the last several months he's been fielding calls from frustrated applicants who can't get answers from DSPS.

"I have never, ever, ever seen it this bad as the backlog has been over the last year," Herstand said. "It is a terrible crisis we have."

The long wait times are putting an even bigger burden on the struggling health care industry, where providers are already in short supply and being stretched thin.

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

Thomas said she's seen it first-hand working in Viroqua at her clinic and at a nearby school where there are a few therapists.

"The delay felt like who's slipping through the cracks of those who really need help, but it's these bureaucratic pieces holding everyone up," Thomas said. "There's people who want to get to work but can't because of these hurdles."

The backlog is not just a problem in Wisconsin. Investigations by NBC and NPR have found similar trends in other states with long delays.

It took Zoe Ellerbusch, a therapist in western Wisconsin, almost two years to apply for a license. After working eight years as a school counselor, Ellerbursch wanted to further her career but wasn’t aware of the new licensing requirements which delayed her application.

When she got a hold of someone at DSPS, Ellerbursch learned she needed more college credits to apply, costing her upwards of $12,000 despite having a masters degree in counseling psychology and experience working with children.

Ellerbusch said miscommunication led the agency to mistakenly award her a license even though her credits were incomplete. She also said employees often told her over the phone they couldn't locate her paperwork.

“I had to wait six weeks just for someone to get back to me,” Ellerbursch said. “It’s so hard.”

Things have been resolved since, but Ellerbursch said changes are necessary at DSPS to cut down on the burdensome process when applying.

“They are overworked and understaffed, but the crazy, bureaucratic requirements about specific courses and having to wait weeks to hear back was extremely difficult," she said.

Lawmakers Demand Solutions

The delays at DSPS have caught the attention of Republican lawmakers who recently held a committee hearing on March 16 to learn more about how it's impacting the workforce.

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

“Between horrendous customer service and not approving provisional licenses or psychology exams, it is clear that there are some serious problems going on 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 concluded their 2021-2022 floor session and likely won't return until next year.

“Far too many Republicans are either directly involved, or at least complicit, in these attacks on DSPS, denying them the staff they need to thrive, and in doing so, manufacturing the ongoing licensure crisis in Wisconsin," Brostoff said.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) testified at the committee after releasing a report, "Backlogged: Licensing Delays Keep People from Entering the Workforce."

WILL's policy director, Kyle Koenen, said he's offered suggestions to improve transparency at DSPS, including tools to track the backlog and how long it takes to process applications. But it remains unclear how far the backlog goes.

Crim welcomes the recommendations, but said the agency can't say how long applications are taking because they use a manual record-keeping system that doesn't have the ability to calculate wait times.

"DSPS can't even tell us what the extent of the backlog is, so how are lawmakers supposed to make decisions on staffing levels if DSPS can't give simple figures?" Koenen said.

DSPS licenses and regulates more than 240 occupations. Crim has asked the Republican-controlled Legislature for additional staff and funding to upgrade their process system, but she didn't always get what she asked for.

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

In the end, the Legislature's budget committee, controlled by Republicans, granted two part-time employees, one full-time staffer and $5 million for system upgrades. Crim said she felt ignored by lawmakers.

"It's hard to build any type of institutional knowledge, systematic updates and changes on a temporary workforce," said Crim. "If we have better technology, we can create better solutions. If we have more staff, we have more hands on deck."

Republican lawmakers introduced two bills this past session targeting licensing in Wisconsin. Senate bill 469 would automatically recognize occupational licenses from those who move to Wisconsin, but the proposal never made it out of committee.

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

Gov. Tony Evers did sign into law AB 218, a bipartisan bill that gives DSPS tools to work directly with credentialing boards to speed up the application process. Once an application is complete, the board is required to decide within 10 days or the application will be automatically approved under the new law.

Improvements Underway

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

Crim is hopeful these changes will speed processing times and ease the burden on her six employees who work in the call center.

For Thomas, she's also optimistic and hopes things will improve so others don't have to experience what she went through.

"I'm glad DSPS is admitting there's an issue," Thomas said. "I feel like this could have been an easier process."

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