Over the last six months ago, the American Psychological Association, already reeling from outrage over its torture collusion, has been hit by another scandal. For years members have been told when they renewed their membership that all practitioner members (those who practice psychology, as opposed to solely teach or do research) are required to pay a “mandatory” assessment for the APA’s sister APA Practice Organization (APAPO), which was largely devoted to lobbying. Recently it has emerged that the assessment fee, around $140/year, was never “mandatory” for APA membership, as had been clearly stated for a decade on the membership renewal form. Rather, APA now states, it was “mandatory” for membership in the APAPO. Yet no one was ever even asked if they wished to be a member of the APAPO and, as far as I am aware, no one chose to join the APAPO.
Thus, the APA apparently collected well over $1,000 from each practitioner member under false pretenses and continued the fraud for the nearly a decade since the APAPO was created in 2001.
Here is an explanation by the APA’s Board of Directors in a May 28, 2010 “explanation” of this decade-long pattern of deceit:
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.
The manner in which APA, APAPO and Division dues have been combined on past dues statements does not make clear that the mandatory practice assessment payment is required for APAPO membership but not for APA membership. The 2011 dues statement instructions will be modified to clarify this point.
Despite admitting that their demand for “mandatory” payment of this optional fee was deceptive at best, the APA has refused to refund the assessment fee for prior years to members requesting a refund.
While some of the activities of the APAPO — such as pushing for mental health parity legislation or pushing for better reimbursement for mental health services — were undoubtedly in the interests of and would be supported by most members, other activities were more controversial. Thus, over the last two decades, the APA and APAPO have devoted massive resources to obtaining the right for psychologists to prescribe psychotropic drugs, a position over which there is great controversy among among many APA members and other psychologists. And not all APA members are thrilled about the extent of resources devoted to lobbying the military and intelligence establishments in support of psychologist positions in those establishments.
Unknown at this point is whether APAPO resources — as opposed to those of the APA itself — were devoted to the lobbying for the inclusion of psychologists in counterterrorism efforts that contributed to APA support and protection for the Bush administration torture program.
Since the Practice Assessment scandal broke last spring, many psychologists have been outraged. Here, for example, is what John L. Caccavale, of the National Alliance of Professional Psychology Providers, a psychology organization competing with the APA for the loyalty of practicing psychologists, had to say in a recent NAPPP newsletter:
A number of NAPPP members who also are APA members have been emailing us and discussing on our listserv the issue of the APA assessment dues on practitioners. This whole issue demonstrates what really is wrong in our profession. We predicate our mission as psychologists on a set of ethical guidelines that, from APA’s conduct, appear essentially to apply only to practitioners. Since 1985, the APA Board of Directors and managerial staff have misled practitioners into believing that the assessment portion of their dues was mandatory when, in fact, it was voluntary. Where were the academic representatives on APA council when this fleecing was taken place?
As for the clinicians on council who knew about this, we have even less goodwill. Everyone who knew about this sham should be charged with ethical violations. If we had our way, they should also be held financially responsible for their part in the deception. However, these days, it appears that few, if any, are held responsible for breaches in ethics or fiduciary responsibility.
Tens of millions of dollars were deftly manipulated from the pockets of clinicians while academic and research members were provided with subsidies. Staff salaries were inflated with the assessment fees and everyone on the APA dole made out. As for clinicians who paid and were burdened by the assessment, there is little that APA can show that justified misleading and perpetuating what many are calling outright fraud. Misleading members in order to reap in money has not been restricted to the dues assessment, however.
Caccavale went on to link this ethical lapse to several other ethical lapses by the APA, including its collusion with the torture program:
The Ethical Lapse In The Torture Of Other Human Beings
The perception and low regard for American psychologists now seen by so many is a direct result of APA’s selective application of their ethics. As a profession, it will take a very long time for us to get past the fact that a leading organization that predicates its mission promoting ethical treatment of people participated and covered up its role in helping to promote and condone the torture of human beings. It appears that APA’s policy on animal treatment in research was stronger and more important than its policy on how humans should be treated. For psychologists this is not a political issue — it’s a human rights issues, an ethical issue and an organizational issue. On all of these counts, APA has failed and brought ill will to all of us who are proud to be psychologists.
Evidently the APA’s practice of pretending to oppose torture while providing crucial support (see the Fact Sheet by the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology) for the torture program is part of a far larger pattern of APA leadership manipulating the membership and the public in support of predetermined goals.
There has been considerable speculation over the last several months as to whether there would be a lawsuit against the APA for its apparent fleecing of its membership of many millions of dollars. Courthouse News Service today brings word that, indeed, such a lawsuit has been filed by psychologist Ellen Levine, a California psychologist, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
In a federal class action, psychologists claim the American Psychological Association extracted millions of dollars a year from its members for decades, under the bogus claim “that a ‘mandatory’ special assessment over and above the annual dues was required”. In fact, the class claims, the APA gave the money to a separate, but affiliated, lobbying group.
Named plaintiff Ellen Levine, of Hayward, Calif., claims the APA has been scooping up $6 million a year from its members, through “misrepresented, ‘mandatory’ annual memberships in an organization known as American Psychological Association Practice Organization (‘APAPO’).”
Levine seeks class damages from both groups, alleging fraud and unjust enrichment.
Levine claims the APA assesses its members – psychologists practicing clinical psychology and psychotherapy – “a special fee with their annual APA dues”, which is calls “a mandatory practice assessment.”
But Levine claims the “special fee” – now about $140 a year – is or should be voluntary, but the APA is forcing it upon its “hundreds of thousands of members.”
“In other words, the APA employed a subterfuge to function as a lobbying and lobbying fundraising entity,” the complaint states.
Responding to the APA’s torture collusion, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology recently called for new leadership for the psychology profession, arising either from a radical reform, including new leadership, for the APA or for the development of new organizational forms to represent the interests and perspectives of psychologists. The Practice Assessment scandal makes even clearer the extent of the work to be done to restore psychology to a firm ethical foundation, anchored in its “do no harm” ethic and in a respect for truth and honesty.
STEPHEN SOLDZ is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. Soldz is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations; he served as a psychological consultant on several Gutanamo trials. Currently Soldz is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR] and a Consultant to Physicians for Human Rights.