Transitioning into any new job can be daunting. But when you’re an association executive, you’re presented with a unique set of challenges. Not only do you have to familiarize yourself with the business operations of the association, but in many cases, you need to learn a whole new industry—its history and all the current issues affecting the constituency you now represent.
It can be pretty heady stuff. And if you’re Jill Epstein and you’re taking over the executive directorship of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT), there’s also the additional consideration that you’re stepping into the shoes of a predecessor—the ubiquitously respected Mary Riemersma—who’s held the position for 26 years.
CalSouthern sat down with Ms. Epstein for a candid and wide-ranging conversation about her first two months as executive director, the most critical issues impacting CAMFT and marriage and family therapists generally, and her vision for the association’s future.
CalSouthern: What was it about the opportunity at CAMFT that initially caught your attention and eventually led to your accepting the position as executive director?
Jill Epstein: When I researched CAMFT, I quickly learned that it was a large, stable, high-functioning member association with a strong, talented board of directors and loyal and long-term staff—all fabulous qualities that any potential executive director would look for. And when I dug a little deeper, I realized that the job was open for the first time in 26 years, so I figured I had better move quickly and cross my fingers, because the job might not come open for another 26 years!
I’m so happy in the position and very grateful that I was the one selected.
CalSouthern: May I ask what it’s like replacing someone who’s held the position for more than a quarter of a century? That’s certainly unusual in this day and age.
Epstein: Yes, it’s definitely a unique situation. And not only had Mary been here for 26 years, but a number of staff members have been at CAMFT for more than 20 years, as well. Several others have a tenure of a decade or more. It’s a culture of tremendous loyalty and commitment at all levels of the association, which I think is extremely impressive and speaks volumes about the organization—especially in this economic environment.
As far as stepping into the role of someone who’s had the job for so long, there are obvious advantages. Mary worked tirelessly for 26 years to make sure that MFTs have a seat at the table with every key coalition and when every critical piece of legislation is debated. She personally ensured that we are represented anywhere and anytime MFTs could be impacted and, as a result, marriage and family therapy is a very highly respected profession among all the crucial stakeholders.
I’ll always be inspired by and grateful for all of the work that Mary did in those early years to position MFTs as respected mental health providers. It’s given me the opportunity to build on our successes and grow the organization.
She continues to make herself available to me, which I greatly appreciate. She has such depth of knowledge about the industry and the profession. Every conversation we have is a wonderful learning experience. There’s so much to learn. When I go to her, she always the information I need on the tip of her tongue. It’s very impressive.
CalSouthern: It seems a daunting proposition to step into a leadership position in a field in which you have relatively little experience. How do you approach learning a new industry?
Epstein: It’s a common situation for association leaders to be faced with. I’ve got the skill set to run an association and serve members—skills which apply across industries—but I’ve never had a background in the industries I’ve worked in. So this is what I’m used to: with every position I’ve held, I’ve had to start over learning a whole new industry, its history, and its current issues and challenges.
For me, it’s exciting and extremely interesting, and I find ours to be a fascinating profession. There’s just so much to learn and I often feel as though I’m drinking from a firehose every day. But I am fortunate to have a smart, supportive staff in place. They’ve been truly wonderful; I can’t say enough about them. And we have a strong board, and I take my marching orders from them. Theirs is the vision and direction that guides the association—I just drive it.
So having this high-functioning organization already in place, I have the luxury of learning the critical issues facing our members in a more methodical way. I’m quite pleased with the process we have in place and happy with how the transition is proceeding.
CalSouthern: What’s your assessment of CAMFT’s greatest strengths, as well as its most significant challenges?
Epstein: Perhaps CAMFT’s greatest strength lies in the excellent reputation the association enjoys with its members, lawmakers, regulatory agencies, mental health organizations—pretty much every key stakeholder in the industry holds CAMFT in high regard. That’s an invaluable asset, and it’s one that’s backed up by a staff which has a long-term commitment to the organization, as well as a wealth of industry and institutional knowledge. Those two factors taken together make for an exceptionally strong operation.
Operationally, the greatest challenge is to recruit more licensed MFTs to become members. These are people who benefit directly from our strong presence and advocacy in Sacramento, and we would love to see them become members and take advantage of some of the more tangible benefits and offerings we have. It’s a matter of getting them to realize what we can do for them.
Another challenge is that we are somewhat limited in terms of our political influence, with a relatively small political action committee, considering the size of our membership. There’s a great opportunity for MFTs to become more politically engaged, at the levels of some other professions, e.g., social workers and psychologists. We have plenty of room for growth in this area.
CalSouthern: What are a few of your most immediate priorities?
Epstein: My most immediate concern is to ensure that the leadership transition is as seamless and thorough as possible so that our service to our membership remains consistently excellent and nothing falls through the cracks. In addition, we are continuing to work hard to see that all the legislation that we’re either supporting or opposing in the 2011 legislative session is resolved the way we would like. Of course, our positions on these issues were formed long before I arrived, but my role is to make sure we’re doing everything possible to obtain favorable results.
CalSouthern: Any new initiatives or projects we should be aware of?
Epstein: We’re making a big push with our “Road to Licensure” program that’s been developed and is presented by our staff attorneys and which is made available free to colleges and universities. We hope institutions will take full advantage of this program (we offer a webinar as well as live presentations) so that their students, right off the bat, will have a clear understanding of what lies ahead, and what sort of technical, legal, and ethical requirements they will need to meet.
We’re also in the midst of creating online educational programming that will be a tremendous enhancement to our content portfolio. I encourage members to stay tuned for more information in this regard.
CalSouthern: What are a few goals you have in mind for the longer term?
Epstein: The most pressing long-term goal is to successfully lobby Congress to include MFTs as Medicare-covered providers. This has eluded us for a long time. But we’ve put in a tremendous amount of groundwork on this issue and I am quite confident that it’s something that’s going to happen. And when it does, it will open up numerous opportunities for our members that don’t exist today. Hopefully, the foundation that’s been laid will pay dividends in the not-too-distant future.
CalSouthern: In your opinion, what are two or three of CAMFT’s most valuable member benefits?
Epstein: Perhaps the most important, immediately tangible benefit we offer is the ability for members to contact a CAMFT attorney for guidance regarding legal, business, or ethical issues. This is so truly unique and valuable; I’ve never seen a similar benefit offered by any other association I’ve worked with or for. I’m constantly in awe at the wealth of knowledge and expertise our legal team possesses. It’s a tremendous resource.
I also think our magazine and website are excellent tools for educational and professional development.
Of course, there’s also the great intangible benefit of having CAMFT advocate on MFTs’ behalf with Congress, the California legislature, the Bureau of Behavioral Sciences (BBS) and any and all other entities that touch MFTs and their interests.
CalSouthern: Any important benefits that are lesser known or underutilized that you would like to make members aware of?
Epstein: Members of CAMFT have free, unlimited access to an easily searchable database (EBSCOhost) of hundreds of peer-reviewed journals devoted to psychology and the behavioral sciences. Members can easily locate, view, and print full-text articles on topics of interest with this premium online research tool. We constantly hear from members who are amazed when they first discover this benefit; similar services could cost thousands of dollars to access privately. It’s been something of an unintended secret—we want all members to be made aware of and benefit from this service.
Another program that is a bit lesser known—probably because it is relatively new—is the CAMFT Community. It’s essentially a members-only social network. It’s a great tool for making a large organization such as ours more personal. It fosters dialogue and networking with your CAMFT colleagues from across the state. You can also create or participate in special-interest groups or access specialized reference materials. Online networks such as these are not the wave of the future—their time is now, and we find that members that make their way to the CAMFT Community don’t leave, but tend to become active participants.
And finally, I believe that our local chapters are underutilized. CAMFT members can join one of 29 chapters across the state to connect and network with colleagues and supervisors in their area. And if people join a local chapter within 30 days of becoming a member of CAMFT, they’ll receive a $25 rebate from CAMFT—we want to incentivize people to not only join CAMFT, but to also join their local chapters so that they can immediately begin to enjoy the benefits of local networking.
CalSouthern: In your opinion, what are a few of the most critical issues affecting MFTs today, both licensed and pre-licensed?
Epstein: Overall, I think that the Medicare issue I alluded to earlier (getting Congress to pass legislation recognizing MFTs as Medicare-covered providers) is probably the most critical. Another is overcoming the complexities of working with managed health care plans and insurers. We can’t affect reimbursement rates directly because of anti-trust law, but we do work with providers and plans with the goal of demonstrating the valuable services our members provide and the reasons why reimbursement rates should be adjusted. These are two overarching issues that will remain on the front burner.
Regarding pre-licensed MFTs, many have issues directly relating to BBS staffing challenges. For example, some are experiencing significant delays in having exam applications processed. Hopefully, this won’t be a long-term issue; it’s impacted by the governor’s state-wide hiring freeze due to California’s budget concerns. Because of this, there’s little CAMFT can do. But we have, however, been in contact with the governor’s office, expressing our support for the BBS’s request for an exemption from the freeze, citing the negative public impact that will occur when there aren’t enough MFTs to adequately address the mental health issues in our communities.
Also, it’s important for pre-licensees to navigate the licensure path in a lawful and ethical manner. We want to make sure that they don’t make mistakes during their internships which could lead to hours being disqualified. For example, they can’t operate as an independent contractor, they can’t be supervised by a relative, they can’t let their registration lapse or work more than the maximum number of supervised hours per week. These are all potential pitfalls about which our legal team is well informed and happy to provide guidance.
CalSouthern: Any issues lurking on the horizon?
Epstein: The ones that come to mind concern the realignment of mental health programs in California and how the profession will be impacted by budget cuts. Right now, for example, the Department of Mental Health is being phased out and absorbed by the Department of Health Care Services. It remains to be seen how that will impact providers and the delivery of mental health care services.
Another issue continuing to loom on the horizon is the impact of national health care reform on MFTs, which we’ll continue to keep a watchful eye on as the reform plays out.
CalSouthern: Do you have any updates from the legislative and advocacy front?
Epstein: I have news on several specific pieces of proposed legislation. AB 956 is a CAMFT-sponsored bill that requires interns who use the acronym “MFTi” in advertising to spell out what that means, as well as provide their registration number, and supervisor information. That bill as moved to the Senate floor and we expect it to be passed and signed.
SB 363, as it was originally introduced, would have permitted trainees to gain experience outside of their practicum assignments for a period of 45 days. In the first committee meeting, we were able to get the 45-day limitation increased to 90 days. With that revision—which should be good news to current students—CAMFT has removed its opposition to that portion of the bill. CAMFT still opposes other provisions of the bill that limit opportunities for MFT interns to receive supervision.
Finally, and returning to the Medicare issue, SB 604 has bi-partisan co-sponsors in U.S. Senate, and while it has not yet been introduced in the House, we know of a Congressman from New York who has agreed to introduce the bill; he’s just waiting for a Republican member to become a co-sponsor. So we are optimistic that a bill will once again be introduced in Congress regarding the all-important Medicare issue.
In other news, we have petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to permit MFTs to be credentialed professionals able to serve as substance abuse experts, and to date, there’s been no opposition filed to our petition. It’s just another way CAMFT is working to make sure our members have as many employment opportunities as possible.
CalSouthern: What opportunities exist for members who wish to become more involved with CAMFT?
Epstein: The chapters, boards, and committees are only as strong as the individuals who volunteer. They’re extremely dependent on gifted and committed members who step forward into leadership positions, and we encourage interested members to do so. And these opportunities exist for pre-licensees, as well. CAMFT and local chapters reserve a seat on their boards for pre-licensed members, recognizing how important it is to have this key constituency represented.
Another great way for members to get involved in a meaningful way is to make themselves aware of the various pieces of legislation that will impact the future of the profession and become engaged in the legislative process, whether it’s communicating with their lawmakers (through visits, letters, or emails), donating to our political action committee, or any other way they’re moved to become involved on the legislative front. This work is crucial and can be extremely effective.
CalSouthern: Any words of advice for students who have recently embarked on the long—but rewarding—educational road that this career requires?
Epstein: One thing that I have observed in my short time here is that therapists are held to a very high standard of ethical behavior, not only by CAMFT and the BBS, but by society at large. I had not fully appreciated just how high the expectations are—with respect to how therapists conduct themselves in their professional and private lives—until I became more a bit more entrenched in this job. I think it’s critically important for students to begin exercising sound judgment, and to begin to live by these high standards from the moment they start down this career path. CalSouthern: What are a few highlights of your early tenure at CAMFT?
Epstein: In the short time I’ve been on the job, I’ve had the good fortune of being exposed to so many aspects of the organization. I’ve participated in an annual conference, spoken at chapter events, attended meetings in Sacramento—it’s been a quick, down-and-dirty exposure to all of CAMFT’s moving parts, and all very enjoyable. The staff remains extremely committed, loyal, smart, and helpful. The board is wise, fair, and engaged. There’s little more an executive director could ask for.