NCBTMB: Quit the Small Stuff and Take the Bold Step

Nearly two years ago, the Tennessee Board of Massage Licensure voted to change its rule pertaining to the examinations approved for licensure of massage therapists. They chose to adopt the Massage & Bodywork Licensing Examination offered by FSMTB as the only approved exam – and sunset the use of the National Certification Examination for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork offered by NCBTMB.

That decision was entirely within the Board’s authority, and was based on the fact that the MBLEx is owned and administered by FSMTB, which consists of its Member Boards. This structure gives state regulatory boards direct ownership and supervision over this exam, which has never been the case with the use of NCBTMB’s private certification exams for state licensure purposes.

Rule changes can sometimes take a long time to make their way through the administrative process, and Tennessee’s exam rule just came up yesterday for final approval before a committee of the State Senate. This could and should have been a simple legislative rubber stamp of an agency decision, but NCBTMB threw a monkey wrench into the works by sending in a representative to oppose the rule change.

I was told last year by former NCBTMB CEO Paul Lindamood that they were swearing off the battle against the MBLEx, and would no longer challenge state massage board actions around exam approvals. He stated to me at the time that he knew they weren’t making any friends by doing so. The new CEO, Mike Williams, who came on board last September, apparently does not share that point of view.

At the committee hearing, the Senators stayed the decision on the rule change for another 30 days and sent the matter back to the Board for further consideration. According to my sources, the hearing went poorly, with legislators failing to understand the difference in the exams, state board members unable to answer the question about what the pass rate is on the exam, and general confusion leading to the stay instead of a decision.

I spoke to NCBTMB President Alexa Zaledonis today, who stated that “We didn’t go to Tennessee to fight, but to state our position. There are still people who want to take our exams and we support them having a choice. We never desire to create controversy in the states. We have quality licensing exams, a lot of people do like them and ask us to help keep them available in their states. No malicious intent, just a desire to let those people have a choice and so we try to stand up for them in an appropriate fashion.”

Earlier this year, there was an ugly ruckus in Ohio over a similar kind of rule change. It ended in a Massage Therapy Advisory Committee member being removed after he asked the NCBTMB during the hearing: “How much money will it take to make you go away?” It was deemed unprofessional conduct at best, and an offer of a bribe at worst.

While I hate the way the question was put forth, it has more than a little basis in reality. I personally would paraphrase that to: “How much money will it take for you to get out of the entry-level licensing exam business?” 38 states are still accepting the NCBTMB exams, but all you have to do is look at NCB’s financials (available on Guidestar.org) to see that they’ve had their butt kicked by the MBLEx. The MBLEx is a licensing exam used for licensing purposes. It’s the right tool for the job, and the marketplace has affirmed it by an overwhelming margin. The state boards themselves don’t derive income from the MBLEx; FSMTB is a non-profit organization (as is NCBTMB) and the Member Boards pay annual dues to the Federation.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you know that this is a relatively new opinion of mine –that the NCBTMB should get out of the entry-level exam market. I argued against that for a number of years. Rick Rosen, (a fellow North Carolinian and industry thought leader), has argued that point with me here on this blog and in other forums a number of times, as have others, and I resisted that change for a long time. However, I finally came around to Rosen’s point of view. A few months ago when NCBTMB announced the creation of a new post-graduate Board Certification credential and the ending of the current entry-level National Certification credential, I truly felt like it was the best move to be made.

The issue is that ever since the appearance of the MBLEx, the value of being Nationally Certified has largely gone by the wayside. I’ve heard many accusations that the MBLEx is an easier test than the National Certification Exam. This is not a valid argument, because these are two different tests created for entirely different purposes. The real point here is that National Certification no longer distinguishes therapists from the pack like it did back in the days when it was the only credentialing exam in the massage therapy field. I have personally been NCTMB for 12 years. I have always maintained my certification, even after the MBLEx appeared, but I know many therapists who have let it go because they’ve reached the belief that it doesn’t mean anything in the marketplace.

Under the new plan, Board Certification includes the requirements of 750 hours of education, passing a new higher-level exam, 250 hours of hands-on experience, keeping CPR certification current, and a criminal background check. Those who are already Nationally Certified will not have to take the new exam. In our conversation today, Zaledonis stated “Our Board Certification exam is created to test individuals who have achieved 750 hours of education and are at a level of expertise that exceeds an entry level graduate. Over 8000 individuals responded to our JTA, these answers (after psychometric interpretation) along with a panel of subject matter experts were used to differentiate between a entry level licensed practitioner and a certified practitioner. Our Certification test is different from a licensing exam in that it uses more cognitive thinking over just recall using innovative items over traditional. This test, coupled with the other requirements, are the start of a program that truly differentiates licensing from certification.”

I personally know many of the people on the staff and on the Board of the NCBTMB. I have no doubts about their dedication to the profession, and when it comes down to it, the organization isn’t an island. A CEO serves at the pleasure of the Board, and Board members have to reach a consensus. Apparently the members who are currently serving the NCBTMB have agreed to follow this path of continuing to challenge state boards, and that distresses me. I think it is a misguided effort, no matter how good their intentions. Even the name of the organization speaks to that: National Certification Board. It isn’t the National Licensing Board. There isn’t a National License. There is no portability, and the swirling sewer of argument and confusion around the exams is not helping the situation. I think the time is ripe for the NCBTMB to get out of the entry-level market altogether and focus 100% of their resources on the development and rollout of their new post-graduate credential. This IS something that our profession needs, and I urge the NCB leadership to let go of the past and turn towards the future.

I imagine that money is a primary factor in the organization hanging on to entry-level testing, and in the decision to continue challenging state boards that are ready to drop them. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that states don’t want a private certification organization coming in and telling them how to run their business. State board members are normally unpaid volunteers who give up home, family and work time to serve a board….and to have an outside party come in and tell them they did the wrong thing doesn’t sit very well, (as I personally know). I don’t want to see the NCBTMB crippled to the vanishing point. Going around challenging state agencies is expensive, and it doesn’t win them any friends.

So here we are with a Catch-22. It’s time for NCBTMB to exit the entry-level testing business, but they don’t have the money to sustain them while the new Board Certification program is getting built. They need a bridge to help them get where we would like them to go.

There is a straightforward solution to this situation. Since the lion’s share of revenue from entry-level testing has shifted over to FSMTB, they now have a significant cash reserve. It is in the best interests of their Member Boards to bring a quick and painless end to the “exam wars” and to establish the MBLEx as the single standardized exam for state licensure. The profession as a whole will benefit, and portability for therapists will be improved.

What needs to happen is that NCBTMB declares that it will no longer offer any of its exams for state licensure purposes as of a certain date. In exchange, FSMTB will give NCBTMB a certain amount of money over a period of time to compensate it for this move. The mechanism for this process is called a Transfer Agreement, and there is a clear precedent we can look at.

For many years, the American Physical Therapy Association owned and operated the national exam used by state PT boards for licensure. APTA (like our own AMTA) is a private non-profit membership association, with no accountability to state PT boards. Because of the same inherent problems we’ve finally come to recognize, the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy entered into negotiations with APTA, and engineered a Transfer Agreement to take over that exam in the late ’80s. It’s worked like a charm ever since. Physical Therapy has 50-state licensure, and a lot more consistency in their state-to-state regulations than we have in the massage field.

Having one standardized national licensing exam is one of the hallmarks of a profession. We are at a critical juncture, where the opportunity to take a major step towards professional status is within our grasp. This will take the willingness and cooperation of the leaders of both NCBTMB and FSMTB to come together to work out the details of this agreement.

Let’s stop wasting time on the small stuff. Take the bold step, for the betterment of all.

 

 

 

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