You would think psychologists would have a unique understanding and appreciation of the power of human language and the meaning of words. Words shape perception, and psychologists not only study human perception, but also work to help change it when people are in need.
So in what world does a “mandatory assessment” fee not actually mean “mandatory” (as in, required)? Apparently, in the world of the American Psychological Association.
Since its inception, many, if not most, APA members have thought it was a required payment if you were a practicing clinical psychologist. It’s no wonder — the APA has referred to the fee as a “mandatory assessment” for the majority of that time. For most of us, that means it is required and obligatory.
(If you have no interest in American psychologist politics, you can safely skip the rest of this somewhat lengthy entry.)
The American Psychological Association (APA) is the world’s largest organization representing psychologists — both clinical, teaching and research psychologists (amongst the many, many other flavors too numerous to mention here). Since 1986, the APA has been assessing clinicians — those psychologists who actually practice clinical psychology and do psychotherapy — a special fee with their annual dues. This fee was “for licensed healthcare psychologists to fund additional professional practice advocacy activities.”
This fee is not inconsequential. In 2009 it was $137 while the annual APA dues themselves were $238. That’s more than half of a psychologist’s annual dues alone. While we’re not talking about big bucks individually, it comes out to $4.5 – $5.5 million per year altogether.
APA’s website in 2002 also noted as much, saying that “Licensed or certified Members, Fellow, and Associate Members who must pay the Special Assessment include…” (see the screenshot below, emphasis ours)
(This wording continued for a decade on the APA website, using the words “must pay” from 1999 to 2009, although the fee’s name was changed from a special assessment to a practice assessment in 2005.)
So imagine members’ surprise when earlier this year it was revealed that the special assessment that everyone thought was required is actually a voluntary dues payment to be a member of a separate organization.
You won’t find the words “must pay” on the APA website any longer, nor the completely separate organization that’s been getting all of this money, the APA Practice Organization (APAPO). Instead, by carefully wording information about the special assessment, it continues to look like a required fee:
Licensed APA members who provide health or mental health services or supervise those who do pay the Practice Assessment to belong to the APA Practice organization. The base Practice Assessment amount of $137 for 2010 is noted on the APA dues statements sent in September 2009.
Several categories of members are able to claim an “adjustment” that results in a reduced Practice Assessment or no payment due.
Nowhere in the information about the special fee are the words “voluntary” or “optional” mentioned. In fact, by having a whole paragraph devoted to people who are exempt from paying the fee, they reinforce the message that all other clinicians must pay this fee.
In addition to this type of consistent wording around the fee, the other primary reasons APA members believe the fee is required because it comes pre-printed on their annual membership dues statement. By pre-printing the fee as though it were equivalent in nature to the annual dues, the APA has been suggesting for years the fee is required.
The American Psychological Association’s Response
This revelation started by a member asking an innocuous question about the fee on one of the APA’s division’s mailing lists. After the resulting blowup on the Division 12 and other APA mailing lists, the APA’s Board of Directors issued this statement on May 5. Most of the letter explains what the APAPO actually is (which seems odd, given APA members have been supporting this organization for the past 9 years and are already existing members of it!). In the few sentences the APA mentions the “mandatory” practice assessment fee, it only adds to the confusion:
The special assessment was created by the APA Council of Representatives in 1985 as a “mandatory assessment” beyond the regular dues payment for licensed healthcare psychologists to fund additional professional practice advocacy activities. […]
The Council’s action to create the APAPO did not alter the mandatory nature of the original special assessment. Payment of the practice assessment by licensed practitioner members of APA is required for membership in APAPO. Practitioners who pay the practice assessment (and the majority do) are members of both APA and APAPO.
As was true with the original special assessment for practice advocacy, we do not terminate or deny membership in APA for those practitioners who fail to pay the practice assessment.
In the first and second paragraphs, the APA refers to the fee as being “mandatory.” But in the third paragraph, they note that by not paying it, you don’t lose anything. You’re still an APA member in good standing, nor will they won’t come after you to pay it. There’s absolutely nothing mandatory about this so-called mandatory fee.
I asked Dr. Katherine Nordal, the Executive Director of the APA’s Practice Directorate to help clarify the APA/APAPO relationship:
As set forth in its organizational documents, membership in the APA Practice Organization requires membership in APA; only members of APA can be members of APAPO. So while the APA Practice Organization is a distinct legal entity from APA that is tax exempt under different IRS provisions than is APA, we also emphasize the affiliate or companion nature of the two organizations. Consistent with the fact that APA and APAPO are affiliated entities, APAPO’s bylaws provide that its board of directors is comprised of the same individuals who constitute the APA Board of Directors. […]
However, we concur that the website would benefit from additional information about our governance structure such as you suggest in your email. We already are working on providing that additional material at apapracticecentral.org.
Basically, except in the eyes of the IRS, the APA and the APAPO are the same organization. The APAPO is actually run out of the Practice Directorate (a fact you can find with enough digging, but which is still not on the APAPO website).
Dr. Nordal also clarified the nature of the assessment —
“Payment of the assessment […] by licensed practitioner members of APA is required for membership in APAPO.”
Naturally. If I wanted to be a member of National Geographic, payment of their membership fee would be required to be a member of that organization. That’s stating the obvious. What’s not so obvious is when APA members were notified and asked to become voluntary members of the APAPO. I’ve queried many clinical psychologists about this question, and none of them ever remember being asked to join the APAPO. What an odd way of recruiting members.
Our Take on the APA Special Assessment Fee
Now, don’t get me wrong — I think it’s great that there’s this separate organization advocating on behalf of practicing psychologists. I believe the APAPO should continue to be supported.
However, I believe it should be supported transparently and separately from the APA. If I want to become a member of the APAPO, I should seek out information on my own how to do so. It shouldn’t just be included and listed as a “mandatory assessment” or, since 2005, a “practice assessment” on my dues statement.
I think what has APA psychologist members up in arms — and I believe rightfully so — is the subtle deception that has been apparently perpetrated on the membership for the past 24 years about this fee. You cannot have a fee that is “mandatory” in one breath, but then admit that nothing happens if you don’t pay it. That makes it an optional fee — in ordinary English language — and one that should be noted as such in all future references to it.
A person must be able to choose what organizations they want to be a member of. By suggesting that, if you’re a clinical psychologist, membership in the APAPO is mandatory (through the “mandatory assessment”), the APA is dangerously close to losing another contingent of practicing psychologists in protest. The APA should step up to the plate and do the right thing — offering refunds to any member who felt deceived by how this fee was portrayed by the APA all these years.
If psychologists can’t even be clear when communicating to their own colleagues, what hope do psychologists have in trying to communicate with others?
Read more about this controversy: Student Doctor Network thread on this issue