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'This lack of regulation is egregious': Virginia lawmakers pass bills to improve oversight of student loan servicers

Virginia legislators hope a proposal backed by both chambers of the General Assembly will protect borrowers from their student loan servicers.

The “Borrower’s Bill of Rights,” as it’s commonly referred to, cleared the House of Delegates in late January, and the Senate unanimously approved it on Wednesday.

House Bill 10 from Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, and Senate Bill 77 from Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, would require companies that service student loans, such as Navient, to be licensed by the State Corporation Commission. The legislation also states the servicers are barred from misrepresenting the loans; knowingly misapplying the loans to a borrower’s balance; and not reporting a borrower’s payment history to a credit bureau.

Those prohibitions would carry with them a civil penalty of up to $2,500.

“Every other type of debt is regulated in Virginia, except student loans,” Howell said. “This lack of regulation is egregious.”

Virginia is home to 1.04 million student loan borrowers, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student loan data center. Those borrowers have $41.3 billion in outstanding debt, with the average borrower $40,457 in the hole.

Simon, a real estate lawyer, said the student loan debt causes many young adults to delay buying their first house.

That’s the situation for Alexa Severo, a second-grade teacher in Sterling in Loudoun County, who still has student loans from graduate school at George Mason University. Severo didn’t have a negative experience with her servicer, but the industry should be regulated like other financial products, she said.

“If we don’t regulate them, people will continue to get bad advice,” Severo said. “This legislation will help people like me get the information they need to make the best decisions about their loans so that they can get out of debt faster.”

While Severo said her experience has been fine, others can’t say the same.

Virginians with student loans have submitted more than 2,000 complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, according to a report on the state of student loan debt in Virginia this year by the Virginia Poverty Law Center and Student Borrower Protection Center, among other groups.

Roughly 1 in 5 of those complaints stem from how payments were processed or applied, the report says, while others relate to information about repayment options and public service loan forgiveness, among other things.

“I have contacted Navient multiple times to resolve this issue, and yet there has been no resolution,” one complaint reads. “This is frustrating as even though I make a monthly payment, my loans are consistently at risk of becoming past due if the servicer misapplies the payment and I do not catch the mistake.”

The complaint was closed, and the borrower was given an unspecified amount of “monetary relief,” according to a copy of the grievance.

Roughly half of the complaints by Virginians have been made against Navient, a Delaware-based servicer of private and federal student loans.

Paul Hartwick, a spokesman for the company, said Navient “supports the investment students make in college by helping them navigate an overly complex federal program created by Congress” and has “led the way with increased enrollment in affordable payment plans and helped millions of Americans pay off their loans.”

“We always encourage borrowers who have financial challenges to respond to our outreach or contact us to learn about repayment options,” he said.

Data provided by Hartwick show that the number of complaints against the company by Virginians has tailed off since peaking at 599 in 2017. There were 205 complaints in 2019 and eight so far this year, according to the data.

Scott Buchanan, the executive director of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance, said Virginia lawmakers should focus on the state’s tuition rates, which he said is the primary driver of soaring student loan balances.

“We’re all really concerned about college cost,” Buchanan said. “This bill doesn’t address those issues at all.”

Tuition at every four-year public college in Virginia has increased at least 50% since the 2008-09 school year. The state budget last year froze tuition at the state’s public colleges. A similar initiative was not included in Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed budget for the next two years, which lawmakers are debating.

Buchanan added that states having different regulations for student loan servicers can confuse borrowers.

Eleven states have passed bills similar to the one Virginia is set to adopt, according to the Student Borrower Protection Center.

Seth Frotman, the center’s executive director, said it is important for Virginia to protect borrowers against “predatory actors.”

“This bill ensures the commonwealth is using all of the tools it can to demand that these borrowers get justice if they get ripped off by these student loan companies,” he said.

The bills have delayed enactment dates of July 1, 2021, compared with other approved bills, which would take effect this year on July 1. The SCC can start accepting applications from the servicers, though, on March 1, 2021.


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State bill would create recovery high school for students coping with substance abuse

Kerri Rhodes knew her son, Taylor, had a substance abuse problem while he was attending Freeman High School in Henrico County.

She would read texts between Taylor and his classmates discussing who had drugs and where to get them. Rhodes recalled that Taylor’s sister was even approached in the Freeman library a few years ago by another student who offered anti-anxiety pills from a zip-lock bag.

Rhodes said she wishes that Taylor, who ultimately graduated from Patrick Henry High School in Hanover County, could have worked toward his diploma in a different environment; one without peer pressure and easy access to drugs, which ended his life at 20.

“Those kids need long-term comprehensive support, and that’s what we’re missing in the community and the schools,” said Rhodes, a school counselor in Henrico’s school system. “You can’t be in a high school environment where other kids are using drugs and alcohol.”

Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, is seeking to fill the void, with a proposal to launch a recovery-based high school in Chesterfield that would be open to students in central Virginia who are battling substance abuse.

Coyner is asking for $1.6 million from the state to do it. The proposal sailed through the House of Delegates on Jan. 31, by a vote of 94-4, and awaits vetting by the state Senate. The pilot program as envisioned would run for two years, staffed by an administrator, a half-dozen teachers, a substance abuse counselor, a traditional school counselor, a nurse and a psychologist, Coyner said.

“Many of the things that test your sobriety are right there in front of you in your traditional high school setting,” Coyner said. “Fear, anxiety and stressors are present that tend to make you move back into the use of whatever has plagued you.”

Recovery high schools have been around since 1979, when the first one opened in Silver Spring, Md., said Andy Finch, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and co-founder of the Association of Recovery Schools. They grew in number until the early 2000s, when there were roughly 45 in the U.S., but dwindled amid the Great Recession. They have since ticked back up and number about 42, he said.

Finch said there’s a yawning gap between the number of students who have a problem and the number who get treatment. The National Survey of Drug Use and Health found that about 946,000 adolescents needed substance abuse treatment in 2018, but less than 1 in 5 of them actually received it, Finch said.

There were 77 fatal drug overdoses in Virginia among those age 18 and younger from 2014 through 2018, according to the state Department of Health. About two-thirds of those fatalities involved people who were 15 to 18 years old, the figures show.

Coyner’s proposal would give the Chesterfield County School Board the power to create a year-round recovery high school in the county that would serve 25 students. The school would be open to students in 14 other school systems within the Department of Education’s Region 1 — which includes Richmond, Petersburg and Hopewell, as well as the counties of Hanover, Henrico, Goochland, Powhatan and Sussex.

State education officials say they are not aware of any recovery high school operating currently.

The McShin Foundation once ran its own recovery high school in Henrico, but it ultimately folded in 2018 amid the facility’s high tuition costs, said John Shinholser, a McShin co-founder, who voiced support for Coyner’s proposal. Many people’s addictions begin in their school years, Shinholser said.

Coyner, who was a Chesterfield School Board member when she was elected to her House seat in November, said she hasn’t forgotten Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard telling the School Board that substance abuse problems among county jail inmates often began in middle and high school.

Chesterfield schools Superintendent Merv Daugherty pushed for a recovery high school upon his arrival in 2018, she said.

The system in Wilmington, Del., that Daugherty left to helm Chesterfield public schools was creating its own recovery high school when he left.

If a recovery high school were to open in Chesterfield, the program would be run in an existing school building, Daugherty said.

“Our goal is to walk them through this difficult time, for them to be successful. They will always have to deal with the addiction the rest of their life, but they also see the benefits of being successful,” Daugherty said. “The counseling that would occur [at a recovery high school], the academics that would occur, the job training that would occur would just go a long way to help our young men and women.”

The McShin school was not yet available when Anne Moss Rogers realized her son, Charles, was battling depression in addition to substance abuse. Rogers, who wrote a book about her son’s struggles, said she wishes there had been such an option for Charles, who self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana, and developed a heroin addiction. He killed himself in 2015 at the age of 20.

“I do think it would have helped,” Rogers said of the recovery high school option.

Rhodes and Rogers have both testified in the General Assembly in recent weeks in support of Coyner’s bill. Rogers said a recovery high school would provide students a “herd mentality for recovery,” with students uplifting and supporting one another.

Finch said he found in a federally funded study he wrote that most of the recovery high school students he surveyed had already been through prior treatment for their substance abuse.

“These are schools that really are intended for kids who have made a decision to stop using alcohol or drugs and are looking for a school environment that would support that,” he said.

Finch said that to a casual observer, the school would seem like a typical learning environment, with kids going to math, English and social studies classes. But the schools are usually small, with the average enrollment coming in at about 30 students, he said.

And there are peer support daily check-ins where students talk with one another about whether they have been struggling with staying away from alcohol or drugs.

“It’s basically kind of an emotional support accountability group,” Finch said.


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Legislation aimed at giving former drug users a second chance passes House

As Virginia seeks to expand treatment options for people with substance use disorder, the House of Delegates has passed a bill aimed at making it easier for people in recovery to work for certain programs that help others fight their addictions.

The state has moved in recent years to increase the number of peer recovery specialists, or people who have lived through addiction or mental illness but have achieved substantial recovery and are trained to support others.

But state law prevents people from working for the state behavioral health department, a community services board — a local entity that provides behavioral health services — or any program receiving funding from those entities if the person has certain crimes — known as “barrier crimes” — on their record.

The crimes can range from assault and robbery to sex crimes and murder, and are sometimes linked to substance abuse or mental health crises.

But a bill that passed through the House of Delegates on an 89-10 vote Friday could change that.

The bill, put forward by Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick, would allow people with certain barrier crimes on their records to work in state mental health facilities, community services boards and with private mental health providers if the prospective employer determines that the crimes committed were related to their substance use disorder.

“Our peers have been in a place of mental health crisis or using substances,” said Deirdre Johnson, executive director of VOCAL, a state advocacy organization focused on peer recovery. “It clouds the judgment.”

As Virginia has faced a growing crisis — with more than 10,000 drug overdose deaths in the past decade — the state has put resources into training people to become certified peer recovery specialists.

Studies indicate that peer support lowers the cost of mental health services by reducing repeat hospitalization rates and increasing use of outpatient services. It also improves quality of life and health for those who receive the services, according to Mental Health America.

Still, a number of factors have stood in the way for potential peer recovery specialists to becoming certified and finding jobs in the behavioral health field.

Although 2,049 people have taken the training to become certified since January 2017, there are only 616 people who are currently certified peer recovery specialists.

At the same time, the state behavioral health department has trouble filling jobs in the mental health field.

“I think this will definitely enhance and open up opportunities to grow our workforce,” said Stacy Pendleton, human resources director for the state behavioral health department.

The state does not know how many people have been turned away from mental health service jobs because of barrier crimes, but it estimates that the new legislation would affect 220 people working for private mental health providers.

Before the behavioral health department began making sure people taking peer recovery specialist certification training were made aware of barrier crimes, many people who went through the training did not discover that they wouldn’t be able to work certain jobs until going through the application process and being denied.

Michael Ellyson, who spoke to the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee to advocate for the bill, has a counseling degree from Old Dominion University and is a certified peer recovery specialist trainer.

But in the past four years, he has been denied about a dozen jobs that would involve him working with people who battle substance use disorder.

Ellyson said he has been in recovery from his substance use disorder for 20 years, but a fourth-degree misdemeanor sexual offense on his record from when he was 19 years old, a year after aging out of a foster care system and a painful childhood that he says taught him harmful coping mechanisms, has kept him from being able to do the work that he has been trained to do.

“I take ownership. At one point, I was held accountable and I did my time,” Ellyson said. “At what point can we gain the opportunity to apply for forgiveness?”

The realization that a criminal record can continue to haunt a person in recovery can be disheartening, said Johnson, with VOCAL.

“It is incredibly disempowering,” she said. “It perpetuates the stigma that peers have had to deal with their entire lives.”

Ellyson said the current setup puts peer recovery specialists like him in a tough position. While the job description itself requires that the person have lived through substance use, the crimes that often come with the substance use can prevent them from finding employment.

Although he’s not sure the bill would open doors for him, he hopes that it would for others whose pasts have stood in the way of their employment.

“It’s hard to hold hope when something they did 10, 20, 30 years ago now stands in their way,” Ellyson said.

While the bill would not guarantee a waiver for barrier crimes, it allows certain ones to be assessed on an individual basis, rather than acting as an automatic disqualifier.

“It is a phenomenal step in the right direction,” Johnson said.


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10 Chesterfield jail workers said an inmate's hidden drugs made them ill. The drugs were a prescribed antihistamine and antidepressant.

A drug-related charge has been dismissed against an inmate of the Chesterfield County Jail who hid prescription antihistamine and antidepressant medication under her mattress that authorities thought was fentanyl when they found it. Seven deputies and three nurses reported feeling sick after coming in contact with the medications and were sent to a hospital as a precaution.

Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard initially feared his employees had been exposed to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which Leonard said at the time could be dangerous and even fatal to someone exposed to it. A field test showed the substance had drug properties, but the precise type of narcotic could not immediately be established. The initial test ruled out fentanyl.

The state lab later determined the substances were in fact hydroxyzine, an antihistamine with sedative properties used to treat anxiety disorders, and trazodone, an antidepressant used to treat depression, said defense attorney John Childrey, who represented the inmate charged in the Aug. 15 incident, Sarah E. Moore.

Casual, indirect exposure to those drugs — or even the more potent fentanyl — would not cause people to get sick, said Dr. Ruddy Rose, chief of clinical toxicology at VCU Medical Center and director of the Virginia Poison Center. Even a small amount that touches the skin that is immediately washed off is not going to migrate through the skin and cause toxicity, he said.

The jail workers likely experienced a “psychological reaction to a perceived toxin exposure,” Rose said. “But it’s a very powerful feeling. The brain is a powerful thing. That’s a very common type of phenomenon.”

“The law enforcement officers and EMT crews and fire department [responders] may not like to hear this, but these indirect casual exposures of a drug laying on the table are much [ado] about nothing,” Rose said. “Even a super-potent fentanyl powder — unless you stir it up and put it in front of you and breathe it up your nose — is not going to cause you to get sick.”

The employees who reported feeling ill said they experienced lightheadedness and/or skin rashes, and they were taken to a hospital for examination. All were released with no permanent injuries.

A Chesterfield prosecutor said a “loophole” in the law under which inmate Moore was charged does not cover prescribed, low-level controlled substances.

The law “only really contemplates substances that are illegal,” said Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jennifer Nesbitt. “I think it’s an error in the law. I don’t think that was an intentional choice by members of the legislature. Because certainly somebody else’s prescription medication can be very dangerous” to other people.

When the incident occurred last summer, Leonard said investigators believed Moore, 34, had earlier concealed the drugs — wrapped in a plastic bag — in one of her body cavities or had ingested it before later removing the drugs and placing them under her mattress in a jail holding area.

During a routine and random “shakedown” of the jail’s transit area, where Moore was being held, seven deputies and three nurses were exposed to the substance either directly or through cross-contamination, Leonard said at the time.

Childrey, the inmate’s attorney, said the law under which Moore was charged “doesn’t contemplate people being convicted for having their own prescription medication in jail. So although she may have violated the jail’s protocols and procedures for prescription medications, that’s not the same thing as violating the law that she was charged with.”

Childrey said that’s what Chesterfield General District Court Judge Matthew Nelson found on Jan. 30 when he dismissed the charge of possessing a chemical unlawfully received as a prisoner — which is punishable by up to five years in prison.

At Moore’s preliminary hearing, she testified that both medications had been prescribed to her by a physician.

“It was not disputed by the commonwealth that she received some sort of prescription,” Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt said it appears Moore had been prescribed the drugs through her participation in the county’s drug court program, which is a treatment alternative to incarceration and sometimes conviction for defendants with significant substance abuse problems or addictions.

Moore became eligible to participate in the drug court after her arrest on several embezzlement counts related to her drug addiction. But she was found to be in violation of the terms of her participation and subsequently was sentenced to serve 3½ years on the charges, Nesbitt said.

Nesbitt said the commonwealth’s attorney’s office is now contemplating charging Moore with an offense “that is more fitting to the actual event than the charge that was originally taken out — because she exposed these people to an unknown substance that could be hazardous, whether or not it actually was at the time.”