Allegations that the American Psychological Association (APA) Supported Torture
The latest example is the American Psychological Association. As noted by a Washington Post article from May, 2015, "the APA ... represents more than 122,000 doctoral-level psychologists around the world...." Of these, about 60,000 are licensed clinical psychologists, and the remainder are mainly research psychologists.
The most serious allegations that the APA had betrayed its members values were described in a New York Times article from late April, 2015.
The American Psychological Association secretly collaborated with the administration of President George W. Bush to bolster a legal and ethical justification for the torture of prisoners swept up in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror, according to a new report by a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists.
The involvement of health professionals in the Bush-era interrogation program was significant because it enabled the Justice Department to argue in secret opinions that the program was legal and did not constitute torture, since the interrogations were being monitored by health professionals to make sure they were safe.
The interrogation program has since been shut down, and last year the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a detailed report that described the program as both ineffective and abusive.
In early June 2004, a senior official with the association, the nation’s largest professional organization for psychologists, issued an invitation to a carefully selected group of psychologists and behavioral scientists inside the government to a private meeting to discuss the crisis and the role of psychologists in the interrogation program.
Psychologists from the C.I.A. and other agencies met with association officials in July, and by the next year the association issued guidelines that reaffirmed that it was acceptable for its members to be involved in the interrogation program.
To emphasize their argument that the association grew too close to the interrogation program, the critics’ new report cites a 2003 email from a senior psychologist at the C.I.A. to a senior official at the psychological association. In the email, the C.I.A. psychologist appears to be confiding in the association official about the work of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the private contractors who developed and helped run the enhanced interrogation program at the C.I.A.’s secret prisons around the world.
In the email, written years before the involvement of the two contractors in the interrogation program was made public, the C.I.A. psychologist explains to the association official that the contractors 'are doing special things to special people in special places.'
These are very serious allegations. In a Forbes blog post, Todd Essig wrote,
Starting after 9/11, and continuing to the present day, APA leadership has made a series of bad decisions, ones with appalling and destructive consequence. Significant numbers of people have been harmed. Opportunities to apply psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives have been lost. The public trust in the profession of psychology has been undermined. Things are so bad that the only way forward now is for the involved leadership to resign.
Essig emphasized that the actions of APA leadership appeared to directly conflict with the organization's mission,
Every day without decisive action to redress the breach of the public trust further undermines the APA’s ability to fulfill its mission to 'advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.'
Nonetheless, the APA leadership has made no move to resign, and appear to be waiting for the supposedly independent review they have commissioned of the society's actions regarding torture.
Legal Settlement that the APA Deceived its Members to Collect More Money
While less dramatic, another story appeared last month that further suggested that the APA has seemed to have gone rogue from the interests of its members and their patients. The Washington Post reported,
The American Psychological Association (APA) has settled a class-action lawsuit that accused the organization of deceptively requiring many of its members to pay a large annual fee to fund the group's lobbying arm. The fee was actually optional.
Under the settlement, the APA, which represents more than 122,000 doctoral-level psychologists around the world, has agreed to refund a total of $9.02 million to members who paid the fee between 2000 and early 2015. The assessment, which changed from year to year, was about $140 annually and was charged only to licensed clinicians, not research scientists and others. It generated about $6 million a year, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claimed that in a variety of ways over the years, the APA 'deceptively created the impression that the fee was actually required as part of annual APA dues.' For example, an annual dues assessment said that members who provide health-related services “must pay" the fee that supports the lobbying arm, a separate group known as the APA Practice Organization (APAPO). It was established separately because tax laws restrict nonprofits like the APA from political work and other forms of advocacy.
In 2002, the APA’s Web site stated that members 'must pay the Special Assessment,' and in 2004, the APA announced that starting in 2005 'all APA members who are licensed psychologists will be billed the assessment,' the lawsuit claimed.
This was a legal settlement, so APA leadership did not have to
concede that its communications were misleading and acknowledged no wrongdoing in the settlement. In a news release sent out in January, when the settlement was announced, the organization said that 'APA/APAPO and the plaintiffs disagreed about whether the APA dues statement could mislead practice members concerning the annual practice assessment.'How Did a Society's Leadership Become So Disconnected from its Members and their Values?
These allegations do raise the question of how the leadership of a health care professional society could become so profoundly disconnected from its members. I briefly would suggest the hypothesis that many health care professional societies have functionally become more like publishing houses or marketing and public relations firms.
Consider the most recent financial statement (US IRS form 990) available from the APA (for 2013, link here). The APA had total revenue of over $127 million. Of that, less than 10% came from membership dues ($10,802,967) and convention and conference fees ($2,742,353). So the major sources of revenue of this supposed membership organization were not the members, but "licensing, royalties, and rights," "journal subscriptions," "publication sales," and "other program service." Thus, the organization's finances were more that of a publishing house/ marketing and public relations firm than that of a membership organization. Presumably, leadership may have been more concerned about continuing to generate revenue from such activities than about their membership's wishes, or interests.
The revenue from these activities allowed the organization to accrue real estate valued at over $78 million, and investments valued at over $90 million. Also, it allowed generous payments to the members who served as officers. Twelve members who served as officers, on the board of directors, or otherwise in leadership got more than $10,000 a year. The president got more than $38,000. Traditionally, officers and board members of true membership organizations are unpaid. In addition, the APA paid its hired managers very handsomely. Sixteen received more than $225,000. Of those, twelve received more than $300,000. The executive vice president/ CEO received over $750,000.
So the transformation of the APA from a membership organization to a publishing house/ marketing and public relations firm that allegedly ended up supporting torture, and deceiving its supposed members created a very cozy and remunerative environment for its leaders and those who ostensibly exercised stewardship over them.
Again, this is particularly egregious since this was supposed to be a membership organization that would support research and education in psychology, and psychological care of patients.
In the bigger story from last month, very serious allegations surfaced about the American Psychological Association. These included accusations that top society leaders collaborated with torture, which would seem to be a huge contradiction of the organization's supposed mission to help patients with psychological problems. At the same time, the organization settled a lawsuit that had alleged organizational leaders had deceived their own members in order to collect money to support their lobbying efforts.
We have frequently discussed how leaders of large nominally non-profit health care organizations, mainly hospitals and hospital systems, often seem to put revenue, and their own financial advancement, ahead of the organizations' missions. Sometimes, their actions have been actively mission-hostile. The takeover of hospitals and hospital systems by people with little concern for, or even hostility to those organizations' once noble missions appears to be a singularly bad problem that may be responsible for much health care dysfunction, rising costs, declining access, and ultimately bad patient outcomes.
Now we see another example of a large health care organization, this time a health care professional society, whose leadership seems to have trampled their members' values, supported mistreatment of human beings, and just incidentally deceived their members' to make more money. An important difference in this case is that the organization's leadership is nominally supposed to represent its members. So maybe its members can rise up to ensure leadership that would actually uphold their professional values and their and most importantly their patients' interests.
Maybe the members will still rise up and force the resignations of the officers and managers who profited so much from this mess. At least, if they were to leave the organization, it could no longer pretend to be a membership organization.
As we have said until blue in the face, true health care reform requires leadership of health care organizations that understand health care, cares about its mission, and is willing to be held accountable. A good place to start such reform would be the organizations that are supposed to represent health care professionals.