Social workers’ liability risks evolving amid legal and regulatory challenges

Social workers’ liability risks evolving amid legal and regulatory challenges | Insurance Business America

Is insurance adapting?

Professional Risks

Gia Snape

Social workers and mental health practitioners are among the fastest-growing employment segments in the US, projected to grow 7% by 2032, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, the field is also rapidly changing due to a confluence of pandemic impacts and state-by-state legislation that are shifting liability risks.

One expert has called on insurance to evolve with these changes and highlighted the need for coverage to adapt to new therapies and practices, ensuring that practitioners are adequately protected in an increasingly litigious environment.

“We have to educate those folks to let them know what those new boundaries are because they’ve changed pretty dramatically,” said Tony Benedetto, CEO of Preferra Insurance Company, a risk retention group owned by its policyholders.

Governed by a board of social workers, Preferra is focused heavily on managing professional liability risks of social and mental health workers.

Speaking to Insurance Business, Benedetto underscored the need for the insurance industry to stay up to date with legal and regulatory challenges that loom large for this vertical, particularly in the wake of landmark decisions like Roe v. Wade.

How has the field of social work and mental health evolved?

Benedetto highlighted the transformative effect of the Mental Parity Act, passed in 1996 but introduced in the early 2000s. The legislation shattered the glass ceiling on mental health benefits, he said, paving the way for a surge in demand for these crucial services.

“For a long time, mental health benefits were capped at a certain level, much lower than the other health benefits in the plan. When that was removed, it allowed the demand for mental health services to flourish,” said Benedetto. “There was a demand for social and mental health services, but it was always stifled, so we started to see these professions grow much higher than the average in the marketplace.”

“The positive aspect of COVID is that it forced us all to look closely at what we’ve done because we had always done them that way,” said Benedetto. “We had to adapt to the current situation.”

Necessity became the mother of invention as companies scrambled to adapt to remote work setups, ultimately leading to a more flexible and accessible approach to mental health services.

Benedetto said the rise of telehealth platforms and virtual counselling has boosted the industry.

“One of the interesting things we saw was that people tended to keep more appointments virtually,” he said. “If you combine the technology advantages and the ease of using that technology with the pandemic forcing most of us to adapt, we’ve seen real significant shifts.”

Legal and regulatory challenges growing for social workers

More recently, Benedetto said one of the biggest upcoming challenges for the sector is the Roe v. Wade decision. Different states are taking various positions on the controversial abortion rights ruling.

“We’re not sure how the courts will interpret it,” the CEO said. “Each state has developed its own guidelines. When Roe v. Wade was removed, some states kept what they had, so you didn’t see any change in behaviour among practitioners. However, some states introduced new rules where practitioners there never had those boundaries before.”

Benedetto said the uncertainty creates an opportunity for continuous education and training for practitioners, giving social workers and mental health professionals the tools to navigate the complex legal landscape.

“Risk management is key, as well as helping people figure out their state laws because they’re changing how their coverage can protect them,” Benedetto said.

Insurance companies are increasingly called to be proactive about helping clients manage risks and offer tailored coverage. Preferra, for its part, has deployed education programs, specialized training, and resources for practitioners facing legal dilemmas.

The group was among those that rode the market’s wave of growth following the Mental Health Parity Act. “We have been growing at about 8 to 10% a year, which is beyond the norm. The market generally grows about 2 to 3%,” Benedetto said.

The CEO also sees more opportunities for insurance to serve this growing segment.

“Because demand is rising for mental health services, I think the biggest opportunity for education would be in new graduates, to help them integrate into the workforce in a way that gives them access to the expertise they need.

“We also need supply to stay up, so there’s an opportunity to protect and nurture [practitioners] and help them get grounded in their professions.”

Do you have something to say about the liability risks that the social work and mental health workforce face? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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