- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:

Jan. 21

Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail on student college loans:

As recent college graduates struggle with the burden of student loan debt, here’s some news they can use:

They’re leaving money on the table.

West Virginia high school graduates reportedly missed out on $15 million in free grants by not completing an application for financial aid last year, according to Nerd-Wallet.

Filling out forms is never fun. But the one that many high school graduates and their families are forgetting to fill out begins with a crucial word: “Free.”

More than 7,000 of the state’s high school graduates didn’t complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known by the poetic phrase “FAFSA.”

“Obviously we’re missing some students,” Brian Weingart, financial aid director for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, told the Daily Mail’s Samuel Speciale.

West Virginia is not alone. Students across the country are leaving their FAFSA forms unfilled. The national estimate is an eye-popping $3 billion in unclaimed aid.

In Florida, for example, an estimated $100 million in available Pell Grant money goes unclaimed.

“I think it’s Florida students’ ambivalence to the financial aid process,” Troy Miller, associate research director at Florida College Access Network, told the Tampa Bay Times.

Unless students are actively envisioning dollars signs, filling out a FAFSA form can be as enthralling as saying “FAFSA, FAFSA, FAFSA,” repeatedly.

Some students just assume they’re not eligible.

Detailed financial information is required both from students and their parents.

It’s a hassle. But one with a payoff.

“Anyone thinking about going to college — adults, high school students — should fill one out,” Weingart told the Daily Mail. “Even if you think you don’t qualify, there might be something that changes.”

Motivate yourselves however you must, students. Think of money bags. Sprinkle flower petals on your financial aid forms and chant “FAFSA” until you’re in the zone.

Whatever you need to do, fill out that form. Find help from the College Foundation of West Virginia at www.cfwv.com.




Jan. 18

The Register-Herald, Bleckley, West Virginia, on allocating magistrates:

A study of West Virginia magistrate courts presented last week to the Legislature in Charleston proposed using technology and sharing magistrates across county lines as ways to streamline the system and save taxpayers money.

The National Center for State Courts based the study on magistrate workloads and not county population.

Under the current system, there are 158 magistrates in the state, with a minimum of two per county. Some counties, with higher populations and higher workloads, have as many as 10 magistrates.

Magistrates work under the administrative supervision of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. They are elected for four-year terms in county-by-county votes.

Magistrates play an important role in the state’s judicial hierarchy, ruling on small claims and petty crimes, but also issuing emergency protective orders in domestic violence cases.

Under West Virginia Code, magistrates receive a base salary of $51,125 annually. Those serving in counties with populations higher than 7,300 residents receive $57,500 a year.

To serve as a magistrate, a person does not have to be a lawyer, although some are.

The question posed in the study is whether the magistrates are being allocated to best serve the taxpayers who fund them.

The study proposed several steps to streamline the magistrates’ roles, including allowing them to act outside of the county in which they were elected.

Also, the study proposes allowing magistrates to use technology such as video-conferencing to speed up the judicial process.

The National Center proposed three possible plans to improve the magistrate court system in the state.

A county-based plan similar to the present setup would mirror the current way magistrates are deployed but would allow the chief circuit judge to assign them to temporary service elsewhere.

It also would allocate magistrates based on workload, with one available to hear emergency matters at all hours of the day. That plan requires a minimum of two magistrates per county.

Some counties would gain magistrates under this plan, with Raleigh, which has five magistrates, gaining a magistrate. Other counties, such as Wyoming which now has three, would lose one.

It would not allow the sharing of magistrates across county lines.

The second plan, resource-sharing with judicial circuits, would allow that. A minimum of one magistrate would be present in each county’s magistrate court during regular hours, while a single magistrate would be on call to handle initial appearances, domestic violence protective orders and other emergency matters in the circuit.

This plan reduces the number of magistrates to 129 - 21 fewer than in the county-based plan.

Again, Raleigh County would increase its number of magistrates to six. Wyoming, also a single-county judicial circuit, would also lose magistrates under this plan.

This plan proposes using video-conferencing to reduce travel time for magistrates, but it would call for a law enforcement officer to be present during the conference on the petitioner’s end. Law enforcement usually isn’t involved at this stage of the proceedings in seeking a domestic violence protective order.

The third plan would allocate magistrates to counties based on workload, with at least one on duty at all times. Each county would have at least one elected magistrate, but overall would reduce the number of magistrates to 125.

Allocation of magistrates would be in line with regional jails, with the Southern Regional Jail service having 22 magistrates to serve seven counties.

Some magistrates argue that they were elected in one county, so why should they be forced to operate in another county that didn’t vote them in?

Well, we say, the law is the same, so why shouldn’t they?

At this point, we aren’t ready to select our favorite from among the three plans presented.

What we will say is this kind of new thinking when it comes to government operations is refreshing, and the idea of streamlining the job our magistrates do and using technology to help is definitely a step in the right direction.

If overhauling the magistrate system leaves us with the same results for less money, that’s the way government should operate.

We look forward to more debate on the issue.




Jan. 16

Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, West Virginia on Medicaid expansion:

The public pays a high price for the rampant drug and alcohol abuse in our country.

Some of it is easy to see - property crime and violence, eroding families and child neglect. But there are other costs we do not think of as quickly, from law enforcement manpower and prison expenses to emergency room visits and worker absenteeism.

Until now, the nation’s effort to help people deal with these addictions has been fairly meager.

About 22 million Americans have a drug or alcohol abuse disorder, but less than 10 percent of those people receive any help or treatment, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Of course, many of those people are not actively seeking help, but the services available and the funds to pay for them have been very limited, too.

But the expansion of Medicaid happening in West Virginia and in many states across the country could begin to change that.

In the past, most of those receiving Medicaid benefits were pregnant women, young children and disabled adults. Now, more able-bodied adults, from 18-64 years of age, will be taking part in the program, some of whom have not seen a doctor in years, as a recent Stateline news agency article pointed out.

Their medical needs are something of an unknown, but it is almost certain that doctors will confront problems with drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness that are more prevalent among lower-income demographics. Under the Affordable Care Act, some addiction services and mental health treatment will be covered, and potentially the number of people getting referred for help could rise rapidly.

Even at present, there is a shortage of addiction treatment providers, Stateline reports. Hopefully, those insurance dollars will spark the industry to provide new services to meet the demand, and hopefully, over time those services will become more effective and efficient.

That is a lot of “hoping,” and almost certainly additional Medicaid expense for states.

But reducing drug and alcohol abuse could bring big savings, too. A study in Washington state - where state investment in addiction treatment began several years ago - estimates that every dollar spent saved $2 in medical costs.

In makes sense for hard-hit states such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio to gear up treatment efforts as quickly as possible, while the federal government is footing much of the bill for the Medicaid expansion. That could help reduce addiction-related costs down the road, not only for Medicaid, but for families and communities across the region.



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