From the Well


At the center of the West Virginia state Capitol is an area known as The Well.

It is the informal gathering place for lobbyists, reporters, constituents and lawmakers.

Centrally situated between the chambers of the House of Delegates and Senate,

The Well is where information is often shared, alliances are formed, and deals are made.


86th West Virginia Legislature

December Interim Meetings

State Capitol


December 13, 2023


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In This Edition


·     DHHR: The Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability (LOCHHRA) heard a presentation Monday from Aetna Better Health of West Virginia (ABHWV) Mountain Health Promise about the MCO Foster Care Contract and additional reports about changes within the Department of Health and Human Resources.

·     EMERGENCY SERVICES: A fire service trainer reported on recruitment, training, and retention of firefighters and the WVU Junior Fire Camp.

·     CONSUMER PROTECTION: The Judiciary Committee hears about proposed legislation to guard consumers’ data.

·     EDUCATION: The Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability (LOCEA) heard updates Sunday on the deployment of a simplified Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which, by federal law, becomes effective Jan. 1.

·     CHARLESTON CRISIS: Presidents of Mountaineer Gas and West Virginia American Water on Monday told legislatirs about a Nov. 10 water-line break that led to thousands of gallons of water entering Mountaineer Gas’ distribution system on Charleston’s West Side and causing about 1,500 customers to lose gas service for up to two weeks.




Committee focuses on foster care


The Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability (LOCHHRA) heard a presentation Monday from Aetna Better Health of West Virginia (ABHWV) Mountain Health Promise about the MCO Foster Care Contract and additional reports about changes within the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Kathy Szafran, Executive Director of ABHWV, described the six pillars that guide the organization’s work:

1) Individualized care for all members. Members are the children in the foster care network.

2) Building capacity

3) Determining the right levels of care at the right time for the right length of time of care

4) Shift in mindset, focusing on prevention from becoming foster care children

5) Culture of collaboration that includes services, churches, community, family, etc.

6) Meaningful information that is shared

Ms. Szafran said every child in the system is assigned a care manager under one of three levels of care: intensive, supportive, or population health. More than 21,000 children are currently enrolled, she said. Care managers are located throughout the state.


A collaboration with the Critical Access to Pediatric Psychiatry Program (CAPP WV) has helped provide pediatric psychiatry assessments for children within 24 hours. The federal Children with Serious Emotional Disorder (CSED) program provides high intensity services to children within the home environment.

ABHWV CEO Todd White added that Covid-related funds helped the organization provide services to resource “deserts” in the state. He thanked Delegate Jonathan Pinson of Mason County, who has shared his life experience in the child welfare system and for his role on the Governance Council that considers and implements ideas from a variety of focus groups.

Ms. Szafran closed the presentation with the tagline of a new statewide campaign: “If you’ve ever considered fostering, West Virginia needs you now.””

Agency efficiencies sought

Michael Caruso, Incoming Secretary for the Deptartment of Health Facilities, said the agency is focusing on day-to-day operations and looking at opportunities for efficiencies.

“Our contract staffing costs are astronomical,” Mr. Caruso said, adding the agency has curbed costs by $6 million. It now has a financial advisor to review sustainability of facilities.

Interim Director offers drug-policy update

Rachel Thaxton, Interim Director for the Office of Drug Control Policy, provided an update on the implementation of HB3306, which created Sober Living Homes and a Recovery Residence Task Force. The statute specifies key stakeholders who would participate. Ms. Thaxton said meetings have been open to the public.

Topics they have examined include insurance fraud, human trafficking, the success of programs, and other issues, such as improper referrals and confusion about current laws.

Ms. Thaxton presented a wide range of recommendations from the Task Force that included:

·     amend state law to designate an existing agency to convene a group that will investigate and prosecute recovery residency crimes;

·     make receiving an improper referral actionable;

·     designate an agency to assess fines as listed in statute;

·     amend WV Code 16-59-3(c) to allow for new recovery residences to receive state funding in areas where there are gaps in the continuum of care;

·     mandate the use of an outcome-tracking system for all certified recovery residences;

·     create re-entry housing infrastructure;

·     life and safety requirements consistent with applicable state and federal law for uncertified recovery residences; and

·     statewide recovery-residence register as a business purpose with the Secretary of State and/or Tax Department.

The next steps, Ms. Thaxton said, include creating an advocacy group for recovery residents, continuing Task Force meetings, and working with the “You Can” initiative with the West Virginia Fusion Center to address human trafficking.

Commissioner reports on IDDW Program

Cindy Bean, Commissioner of the Bureau for Medical Services, presented an update on reimbursement rates to the Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities Waiver (IDDW) Program. She thanked the Committee for passing SB617, which provided for the rate study.

She noted that direct-care work is historically not paid well and is a hard job. The Covid shutdown saw competition for workers, and payrates were not competitive, she said. The last rate study was in 2014, but the agency needs a sustainable methodology, Bean said.

Medicaid and stakeholders were part of the study. Geographic differentials, such as additional pay in the Eastern Panhandle, were discussed. Based on all the information and a standardized rate methodology with several components, the study group recommended to not implement a geographic rate differential. The straight rate increase that is being recommended is competitive with bordering states, she said.

The overall increase being recommended is 31%. For home-based care, the recommended rate is $6.36, an increase from $5.45 for a 15-minute unit. For family-serving-family care, the current rate is $2.73, and the recommendation is $3.18. For personal options, such as self-employing a person, the recommended increase is $4.25, up from $2.74.

Delegate Ric Griffith of Wayne County expressed concern about the loss of pandemic funds.

Ms. Thaxton responded the agency could cut services, freeze rates, and cut categories of services, but she cautioned, “These are benefits that are optional, but cutting them out affects health care down the road.”

Draft legislation listed

Following the presentations, the Committee briefly reviewed draft legislation for the upcoming session.

The following bills were unanimously affirmed to be introduced during the 2024 regular session:

·     rename DHHR throughout code and remove DHHR

·     clean up of independent Office of Inspector General

·     extend Managed Care in Foster Care by removing a date placed in code

·     expand power of LOCHHRA to be able to go into executive session to hear information that is not public


Emergency Services


Firefighter recruitment, training discussed


Mark Lambert, Director of West Virginia University Extension Fire Service, made a presentation Tuesday to the Joint Committee on Volunteer Fire Departments and Emergency Medical Services, focusing on recruitment, retention, and training of firefighters and the WVU Junior Fire Camp.

Director Lambert discussed the history and operations of the Junior Fire Academy program. He said the program started in 2007 to help recruit more volunteer firefighters. The week-long camp in June provides hands-on firefighting training to 100 to 150 teenagers each year from across West Virginia and other states. Firefighters provide the training, which covers fire safety, emergency medical response, vehicle extrication, and firefighting.

Director Lambert’s goal is to expand the program and provide more advanced training, possibly including certification testing. He discussed challenges during the Covid pandemic, but he said attendance is rebounding.

Legislators asked questions about training pathways, requirements to join fire departments, and how to keep teenagers who attend the camp engaged.

Delegate Joe Statler of Monongalia County gave a brief update on a taskforce that has been working on behalf of the committee.

“We still very much have a lot of work to do in the EMS area going forward, but I am quite confident that we have some legislation that this committee has talked about before, that’s going to be moved forward and to come out, and I think it will make a big difference to the firefighters across the state,” Delegate Statler said.


Consumer Protection


New legislation geared to guard data


Judiciary Co-Chairman Senator Charles Trump of Morgan County introduced Brian Casto, Legislative Counsel, to explain HB3498, which would create the Consumer Data Protection Act and establish a framework for controlling and processing personal data.

Mr. Casto said 13 states have privacy legislation, but the laws lack uniformity. California was the first to enact a Consumer Privacy Rights Act in 2018, but it didn’t go into effect until 2020. California’s law establishes a limitation on businesses that collect and sell personal information and covers areas such as a consumer right to access and a right to opt out.

Connecticut provides a model with stronger data laws for children.

Virginia was the second state to pass a privacy protection law in 2021, and HB3498 is substantially modeled on Virginia’s law, Mr. Casto said.

Generally, the bill provides a framework for controlling the process, adds definitions, limits the application of the bill, delineates responsibilities and privacy data standards, and limits the collection of personal data. It also provides for consumers to opt out of targeted advertising, sets forth standards to keep data secure, provides privacy notification, and is strictly for the use of the private sector and for-profit businesses, Mr. Casto said.

He noted that federal privacy laws, such as HIPPA (health information privacy), are much more stringent.

Enforcement of HB3498 lies with the Attorney General and provides that consumers can go to the Attorney General if they encounter problems.

Chairman Trump introduced West Virginia University Law Professor Amy Cyphert, noting she is a cum-laude graduate from Harvard Law School and developed and teaches a course on Artificial Intelligence and the law.

Professor Cyphert explained national trends in online privacy legislation.

“A federal vacuum has created the need for action at the state level,” she said, adding that state legislatures need to determine the amount of detail, who is the subject of the legislation, and what is the enforcement mechanism.

“There is no comprehensive federal consumer privacy law,” Professor Cyphert said, although FERPA (educational records privacy), HIPAA (health information privacy), and COPPA (children’s online privacy) provide it for specific purposes.

Professor Cyphert said threshold questions must be answered in legislation, including:

·     What data is covered?

·     Who is actually subject to the legislation?

·     What is the enforcement mechanism?

Consumer rights to consider include right to access, right to correct and/or delete data, and opt-out and opt-in rights, with opting out being the most common. Data portability, allowing consumers to request and receive a copy of their data in a format they can access, also should be considered.

In response to a question from Senator Mike Stuart of Kanawha County about law enforcement gaining access to the information it needs, Cyphert said, “This is still an unclear and evolving area.”

Senator Chandler Swope of Mercer County asked how he and other consumers could find out who is selling their information. Professor Cyphert said that basically people want to know, “How did I get on this list, and how do I get off of it?” She said that situation would need more robust federal privacy legislation.

“Merry Christmas, everybody,” said Chairman Trump upon adjournment.




Simplified student aid form discussed


The Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability (LOCEA) heard updates Sunday on the deployment of a simplified Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which, by federal law, becomes effective Jan. 1. Click here for a legislative report.

Dr. Sarah Armstrong Tucker, Chancellor for the Higher Education Policy Commission/Career Technical and Community Colleges, provided background for the revised FAFSA, saying its intent was to simplify the process for students to determine a student’s family capacity to underwrite higher learning.

Former U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who served as a touted “education governor” in Tennessee as well as a U.S. Department of Education Secretary, urged passage of the legislation, saying the current FASFA process was cumbersome. His goal was to “reduce” the form to “post card” size.

Dr. Tucker said one of the reasons she wanted to discuss the matter was for legislators to be able to provide responses to citizen inquiries. She said the revised FASFA will be easier for homeless students, grandparents, and students whose parents share custody. She cautioned legislators that existing statutory or HEPC/CCTC timelines for completing financial aid applications are affected, although efforts are being made to adjust times.

In other deliberations, LOCEA received updates regarding the 2023 Comprehensive Financial Aid Report.

Brian Weingart, Senior Director of Financial Aid, HEPC and CTCC, touched on various aspects of student financial aid, using extensive statistics, including data showing that 80% of students receiving financial aid are from households that have less than $60,000 in annual income. He also mentioned changes in the state’s PROMISE Scholarship, which effectively allows students, although fewer in number because of revised eligibility requirements, to receive larger financial aid amounts.

Legislators heard about implementation of House Bill 3035, “The Third Grade Success Act,” whose numerous provisions are intended to bolster student learning and achievement based on approaches designed around reading and mathematics proficiency.

Deputy State Superintendent Dr. Sonya White discussed implementation timelines, benchmark testing/assessments, and Department of Education efforts to enhance mathematics proficiency, which Department staff discussed with the Joint Committee on Education.

Dr. White noted the legislation is garnering national attention. She also mentioned the Department of Education, which is pairing with Marshall University’s June Harless Center to update standards regarding approaches about dyslexia.

She also mentioned the Department of Education is intent on studying implementation effectiveness, as well as professional development, potential county pilot projects, and county leeway with interpreting the legislation and its implementation.

Jeff Kelley, WVDE’s Officer of Accountability and Assessment, provided the report on “Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying.” He said, based on reports through the public education information system, 18.5 incidents of bullying and harassment occur in public schools daily. He cited definitional considerations, mentioning that most disciplinary considerations relate to “minor offenses.”

He also discussed demographic “disparities” regarding discipline and noted the impact of social media and the need for teacher preparation programs to focus on discipline.

Micah Whitlow, WVDE Director of School Facilities, discussed efforts to meet Department school safety guidelines, including the absence of room numbers on some classrooms and problems concerning school ingress and egress, particularly with facilities having only one access — a point Senator Bob Plymale of Wayne County made concerning potential blockage of school access that could hamper emergency access to school buildings.

The Joint Standing Committee on Education, in addition to having discussions about House Bill 3035 and “numeracy” proficiency, received reports about the state’s “Grow Your Own” teacher program and sports access for private-school students and homeschoolers.

The Committee also heard a presentation regarding a Wayne County Schools diversity initiative.

Jamie Buckland, who heads Families United for Education, urged lawmakers to clarify some “gaps” about various non-public school alternatives to ease what she said are needed clarifications, particularly regarding the HOPE Scholarship.

initiative intended is to provide a “safe” process to discuss diversity matters with students and staff.


Charleston Utility Crisis


Executives testify about extensive gas outage


Presidents of Mountaineer Gas and West Virginia American Water on Monday addressed members of Joint Standing Committee on Technology and Infrastructure regarding a Nov. 10 water-line break that led to thousands of gallons of water entering 46 miles of Mountaineer Gas’ distribution system on Charleston’s West Side, causing about 1,500 customers to lose gas service for up to two weeks.

Based on testimony, here are the key points:

1.    The incident is rare. According to Committee testimony, a situation in Pheonix, Arizona, may be analogous, based on a Google Search.

2.   A rush to judgment as to which utility is responsible is premature until an investigation, now underway, is completed. The Public Service Commission is leading the investigation. Presidents of both utilities discouraged rushing to judgment.

3.   Even though West Virginia American Water Co. customers may receive compensation for “annoyance and inconvenience,” acceptance of that compensation does not preclude customers from entering class-action lawsuits, two of which are active. That information is based on press reports.

4.    The PSC report may provide additional details regarding factors leading to the incident, although accepted or “routine” repairs were made to the damaged line, which, based on Committee testimony, likely will be “re-excavated.” In that both utility pipes were “parallel,” the investigation will consider matters regarding fill material, detection methodologies, and consumer notification.

5.   As provided in testimony earlier this year relating to utilities, “metals” used in the gas main were circa 1917 and appear to provide sustainable service, although utilities are updating pipes.

Click here to read coverage from WVMetroNews.


Looking Ahead


Here are the dates of upcoming interim meetings:

·     January 7-9


Footnote for Readers


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