Psychologist sues state over license application she says is unconstitutional and discriminatory

A woman with glasses and colored hair stands outside in front of green trees.
Dr. Jenny Poon outside Alaska Public Media in Anchorage on Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

To get her license to practice psychology in Rhode Island, Jennifer Poon said she had to answer one simple question about prior medical care: “Do you have any physical or mental health conditions that would impair your ability to practice?”

But when she moved to Alaska last year, Poon learned the state requires applicants to release all their medical, dental and mental health records to the board. Poon said the requirement is a barrier that punishes people for seeking help. 

“By asking these invasive questions, or allowing unfettered access to your entire entire medical record, that is really going to deter students from or prospective clinicians of whatever age, from seeking out their own care,” Poon said. “And we really need people who are, you know, who have been healed themselves.”

Instead of complying with the requirement, Poon hired a lawyer. She said the requirement is a personal invasion of privacy that discourages people from becoming psychologists in a state that desperately needs them. Alaska is one of a few states that screen applicants seeking a psychology license for mental health history. Poon said it’s especially important for Alaska to reduce barriers to getting a license.

“There are people that I know, because I’ve talked to them, that have chosen to practice elsewhere because of our licensure policies,” Poon said.

According to the lawsuit Poon filed against the state board in March, the required release of medical information is unconstitutional because the state guarantees the right to privacy. Aneliese Palmer, Poon’s lawyer with the Northern Justice Project, said without a legitimate reason, the request is unconstitutional.

“When the state mandates that they have access to your medical records, when there’s not a legitimate purpose to do so, or when that request is so broad that they can peer into all these nooks and crannies of your life, without reason to do so, that violates your right to privacy as enshrined in our state constitution,” Palmer said.

A representative of the state licensing board for psychologists said it is reviewing the complaint but cannot comment on the lawsuit. The Alaska Psychological Association also declined to comment but said in a statement that it supports “civil rights and disability protections for all Alaskans, including Alaskans applying for psychologist licensure.”

According to the application, the contents of licensing files are considered public records, which means anyone can request access to them. Applicants can request confidentiality but the application says that may or may not be granted. Palmer said that’s also a breach of the state constitution’s right to privacy. 

The lawsuit also alleges that the required release of medical records doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law that protects people with physical or mental disabilities from discrimination. 

“It discourages people with disabilities from applying in the first place for having to talk about their disability, disclose all this highly sensitive information about their diagnosis, their treatment,” Palmer said. “And it unfairly burdens people with disabilities, because it requires them to disclose that information.”

Until February, the application also asked directly if a candidate has experienced, been diagnosed with or been treated for mental illness within the last five years. Poon felt that question unfairly burdened and targeted people with disabilities and she didn’t want to answer. 

Poon has a history of mental illness from when she was a child, an experience that led her to the field of psychology so she could help others with similar experiences. She said Alaskans benefit from having mental health providers who have experienced mental illness. 

“We really need providers that reflect the diverse competence, composition of the communities that we serve,” Poon said. “We desperately need people who have had contact with a range of services, from mobile health teams and wellness checks to inpatient hospitalization to outpatient (treatment) — the entire care spectrum.”

She worked with her lawyer last year to send requests to remove the questions she said are discriminatory, and the board ultimately changed the application in late February. Now, it only asks if applicants have any mental or physical condition that would interfere with their ability to practice psychology, more like the application in Rhode Island. But Poon said the board didn’t go far enough in its revisions because it still requires the broad release of medical records.

That’s something she also said unfairly impacts people of color, Alaska Native people and people from other historically oppressed groups. Those groups face higher rates of trauma, so are more likely to experience mental illness, and Poon said the state needs them as mental health care professionals. 

Poon and her lawyer are waiting for the state to respond to the lawsuit. They hope to work together with the board to reach a resolution.  

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Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Rachel here.

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