Recently, psychologists have been shocked to learn that we have been misled for many years by our main professional organization, the American Psychological Association. I count myself among the swindled.
For nearly a quarter of a century, psychologists in clinical practice who were seeking to maintain their membership in the APA have been charged an additional fee, generally amounting to about half the basic membership rate, to support “professional practice advocacy.” (The latter supposedly helps practitioners have some kind of “advocates” among the lobbyist-infested halls of Congress, etc.) The main point being, whether or not you wanted to support that lobbying, or could comfortably afford it (our profession not being as lucrative as, say, psychiatry, or selling Mary Kay products), you were told that this was a “mandatory” part of your annual dues. Since membership in our professional organization is supposedly a good thing, and even sometimes a job requirement (such as when we teach in APA approved graduate programs), we had no alternative but to pay this fee. Nearly $150 or so a year, added to our dues.
Well, as Gomer Pyle used to say, “sur-praaaze, sur-praaze, sur-PRAAZE!” As the result of a recent accidental discovery by a curious member, we find that this fee was never actually required for membership in the APA. Rather, it bought us an additional membership in a separate organization, something called the “APA Practice Organization.” Supposedly a lobbying group that has worked hard to make sure that… well, I have no idea what they actually do. But as a non-card carrying member for nearly 25 years (because nobody issued cards, you see — or letters, or even decals to stick on our bumpers), I can state that nobody ever informed us that the vig was really to buy us a membership in this organization. Nor that the only thing that was truly “mandatory” about the fee was that you had to pay it to be a member of the APAPO — not the APA.
I’ve had years when not having had to pony up an extra C-note and a half would have been helpful. More to the point, I find myself resenting that the same organization against which we had to mount protests to make stop supporting the prisoner torture of the Bush administration, has been lying to its members about what, exactly, it took to stay a member. Essentially, from everything we are hearing, we’ve been deliberately overcharged and (I don’t know what other word to apply here) defrauded for a quarter of a century. To the tune, collectively, of millions of dollars.
I have heard there is at least one class action suit simmering about this, and if so, count me in. I want my money back, with interest, and then some. Not because I’m opposed to some kind of professional “lobbying” or whatever, but because I’m opposed to an organization that purports to stand for, and even to take on itself the mantle of being the arbiter of what is ethical behavior by psychologists, then turning around and pulling stunts like this. And “aw, gee, it was a mistake” won’t cut it. If we did this to our patients, we’d have the APA Ethics cops all over us like a cheap suit. (The bulky kind, not the kind that is too tight and splits when you bend down to pick up a quarter.)
I’ve wondered about sending a little note off to someone. Like, say, the US Dept of Justice. Of course, those are the same guys who won’t prosecute war criminals, not “well placed” ones, anyway. But so you see the problem. Institutions seem to be kind of unreliable these days. Especially when it comes to good old fashioned institutional boat-rocking — the kind of rocking that our 20-somethings expected Obama to do, the kind that they blame the “boomers” for having not done, little realizing that they’re now living through exactly the kind of things we did, when our hopes for a better, more empathic, more ecological, more, I guess, Swedish society were trampled on by the Reaganauts (the Tea-Partiers of the 1980s.)
At times like this one turns for solace to fiction. So I find myself imagining …. (screen goes hazy here… harp music trills…)
It’s Tom Cruise in “The Firm.” And it’s late in the flick, the scene where he shows up in the clinic where there’s a bunch of us psychologists, thuggish folks all. All with our foamy bats which we are about to use to pound on him, for the same cathartic reason, whatever it is, we’ve been chasing the kid all through the film. (Go watch the movie.) So now we’ve got him cornered, right here in our little clinic… but instead of quaking in fear and begging that we not “interpret the transference” all over his sorry ass, he opens his briefcase.
“I’m not here to argue with you, but to apologize. Yes, to apologize for the behavior of my firm, the American Psychological Association. You see, for 25 years, I regret to inform you that my firm has been systematically defrauding you.”
We look at each other, not sure whether to reach for a Kleenex and a Prozac for the kid, or to pull out our heaters. Observing us cemented ankle-deep in our customary ambivalence, he continues…
“You will recognize these.” He hands us photocopies of our annual APA membership renewal forms. In fact, he hands us each a sheaf of 24 of them. Each of them in our own handwriting, one per year. Each sequentially dated page listing our annual membership charges, with photocopies of our checks or credit card numbers, just the way we sent ’em in to the Association.
“Every year, the APA has told you that you were required to pay a mandatory fee for membership — the practice assessment. You remember paying that, don’t you?”
Bruno, next to me, nods and mumbles. I look at my form… we all do. By God, he’s right! Every year, right there in black and white. Right above my “total owed” assessment line and my “amount enclosed” box.
“So?” asks Guido, impatient. “Who cares? A fee’s a fee. We charge them all the time.”
“And how!” somebody snickers. The others chuckle. We’re thinking, nice try, kid. Howsabout now we tell you how you’re just trying to impress a bunch of father and mother figures to save your bacon…?
“Ah,” says Cruise. “Not exactly. Look at this fee again. Look at the wording. Can you read that, Guido?”
Guido, who only has a Masters, frowns and mouths the words. “Man. Duh. Tor. Why.”
“That’s almost right, Guido. It says ‘mandatory.’ That means you have to pay.”
“Hafta pay,” mumble Guido and Bruno simultaneously. They know that phrase.
Cruise continues. “This word “mandatory” on your bill says to you, ‘Nice membership you got there, bub. Be a shame if something happened to it.’ But in fact, nothing ever would happen to it if you didn’t pay. Because that fee was not really mandatory.”
General consernation in the room. Somebody faints. If psychologists were tough guys, there’d be them heaters in their hands about now. A few quietly scribble notes.
“Now here is the thing,” says Cruise. “You were defrauded. You never had to pay that money. But more to the point, they sent you your bills. In the mail.”
“So?” Guido again. A curious fellow, Guido. He should go far.
“So…” Cruise continues, “every time the APA mailed out a bill saying that you were required to pay that fee, they were committing mail fraud. Postal fraud. That’s a federal crime. Each and every renewal form. That’s thousands of instances of mail fraud a year… over twenty four years.”
Guido and Bruno grin their sadistic, toothless grins. Justice will surely happen now, this being a fictional universe and all.