MENTAL HEALTH: Bill Would Allow Psychologists to Prescribe Drugs
A key Senate panel has passed a controversial measure that would allow specially trained psychologists to prescribe drugs to treat mental disorders, including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, the Sacramento Bee reports. With approval from the state Senate's Business and Professions Committee, AB 1144 could move to the floor this summer. Under a "scaled-down version" of the proposed law, only 10 doctorate-level psychologists, who graduated from the military's now-defunct psychopharmacology training program, would receive prescriptive privileges if they decide to return to California once their military duty ends. Their performance would be evaluated by a follow-up study. Advocates of the measure argue it will provide the "information needed to decide whether to continue the practice or expand it to allow all psychologists to pursue the training." They also predict it could eventually help fill a void in rural areas and inner cities, where mental patients often cannot find psychiatrists to treat them with medications.
Psychiatrists and other mental health experts say the measure is the "first step toward allowing any psychologist to prescribe dangerous drugs without medical supervision." Dr. Joseph Sison, a psychiatrist at the University of California-Davis, said that psychologists lack the strong background in biological science needed to prescribe drugs safely. Noting that about half of mental patients take psychiatric drugs in addition to other medicines, he said, "If you don't know the organ system, you could really do a lot of damage. You are not just dealing with the brain." However, Anita Brown, a graduate of the Department of Defense program and now head of the department of psychology at Hampton University in Virginia, said, "We are already experts at behavioral health care. It's the natural evolution to be able to treat your patients with a full range of tools." Supporters of the bill further argue that nonphysicians, including dentists, podiatrists and optometrists, already have prescriptive privileges. They point to a 1998 American College of Neuropsychopharmacology evaluation of the defense program, which found that graduates were "weaker medically than psychiatrists," but "there have been no adverse effects associated" with their practices. Assemblyman Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) introduced the measure after learning that four of seven rural counties in Northern California lack a full-time psychiatrist (Griffith, 6/24).