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Lia Tabackman

Rural County Accuses Drug Makers of Fueling Opioid Epidemic

 

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

Tucked between news of budget meetings and beauty pageant winners published in The Dickenson Star’s 2017 “Year in Review” is a grim statistic: Dickenson County was first in the state and sixth in the nation in opioid overdose deaths per capita.

In Dickenson County, in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia bordering Kentucky, residents have been dying of prescription opioid overdoses in recent years at a rate of about 40 per 100,000 people – more than seven times the statewide rate.

The newspaper’s annual review is cited in the introduction of a lawsuit filed by Dickenson County against 30 pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and providers including Purdue Pharma, Abbott Laboratories and CVS Health Co.

Represented by the Sanford Heisler Sharp law firm and the Cicala Law Firm, Dickenson is suing for $30 million in damages. The suit says the defendants deliberately increased the flow of opioids into the county, state and country.

The case is one of the latest examples of communities across the nation suing pharmaceutical companies and associated businesses and alleging that they had a role in creating the epidemic. In Virginia, the city of Alexandria is suing for $100 million while in neighboring Maryland, Montgomery and Prince George counties have also taken legal action.

Joanne Cicala, founder of the Cicala Law Firm, which has offices in Texas and New York, says those who are responsible for and profited from the epidemic must be held accountable for its costs.

“The opioid epidemic is not accidental. It is not a natural disaster; it is a man-made crisis,” Cicala said. “And worse – the companies that did this were not just seeking to build market share – they knew they were creating addicts.”

In more than 100 pages, the lawsuit tells the story of how Dickenson County – with a population of fewer than 16,000 residents spread out over 334 square miles – was drawn into a prescription opioid overdose epidemic that claimed more than 500 lives across the state in 2017.

Did manufacturers ‘push opioid as safe, effective drugs’?

As with any drug that enters the prescription market, the distribution process begins with manufacturers. In the case of the opioid epidemic, one of the manufacturers is Purdue Pharma, a company known for its best-selling opioid – OxyContin.

In Dickenson County, the lawsuit claims, Purdue Pharma and other defendants recognized “the enormous financial possibilities associated with expanding the opioid market.” So they “rolled out a massive and concerted campaign to misrepresent the addictive qualities of their product, and to push opioids as safe, effective drugs for the treatment of chronic pain,” the suit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, the drug manufacturers took part in a “campaign of deception” rooted in a since-disavowed study by Dr. Russell Portenoy published in the medical journal Pain in 1986.

In the study, Portenoy claimed that opioids could be used for long periods of time “without any risk of addiction” to treat chronic pain unrelated to cancer. The study said patients in pain would not become addicted to opioids because their pain drowned out the euphoria associated with the drugs.

Within a decade, Portenoy was financed by at least a dozen pharmaceutical companies, most of which produced prescription opioids.

The lawsuit argues that Portenoy’s study – paired with the practice of spending millions of dollars on promotional activities that understated the risks of opioids – not only legitimized but normalized the prescribing of opioids in Dickenson and across the country.

In the case of OxyContin – Purdue’s time-released version of oxycodone – promotional materials given to physicians included this key sentence: “Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”

The drug companies’ sales representatives marketed directly to physicians, ensuring that doctors would be advocates for certain drugs, the lawsuit said. As a result, it contended, the pharmaceutical manufacturers were able to insert their products directly into specific markets.

In 2014 alone, the manufacturing defendants named in the Dickenson lawsuit spent more than $168 million on pursuing branded opioid sales contracts with doctors, the lawsuit said.

Twenty-six years after publishing his study justifying the prescription of opioids, Portenoy acknowledged that he erred in understating the risks of addiction associated with such drugs.

“Did I teach about pain management, specifically about opioid therapy, in a way that reflects misinformation? Well, against the standards of 2012, I guess I did,” Portenoy said in an interview that year with The Wall Street Journal. “We didn’t know then what we know now.”

How pharmacy benefit managers influence drug prices

As explained in the lawsuit, pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, are the middleman between the manufacturers and the marketplace; they influence which drugs are used most frequently, set prices for pharmacies and control what drugs are covered by health insurance providers.

PBMs include Caremark, Express Scripts and OptumRX – all named as defendants in the lawsuit. These companies serve as gatekeepers through controlling lists known as “drug formularies” that identify prescription drugs with the greatest overall value.

PBMs and pharmaceutical companies negotiate financial arrangements, including rebates for preferred placement on drug formularies, the lawsuit said. It said manufacturers compete for spots on the list in order to ensure greater utilization of the drugs they make.

Not only do PBMs have the power to make opioids cheaper – they can make less addictive medications harder to acquire, the lawsuit said. For example, it said, United Healthcare places morphine on its lowest-cost coverage tier with no prior permission required; in contrast, Lyrica, a non-opioid drug prescribed for nerve pain, is on the most expensive tier, requiring patients to try other drugs first.

Not just a health crisis but an economic one

The impact of the opioid epidemic in Dickenson County is multifaceted. While the county’s overdose rates are the most conspicuous consequence of the epidemic, the increased flow of opioids into the region has had a ripple effect on the county’s economy, health care system and workforce.

In 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified Dickenson County as one of eight Virginia counties that are vulnerable to the rapid dissemination of HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who inject drugs.

L. Christopher Plein, a professor of public administration at West Virginia University, said the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis, but it also has far-reaching economic consequences.

“Communities become severely stressed by having to respond and deal with this crisis, and they may lack the resources to provide treatment, engage law enforcement and provide recovery services,” Plein said. “These communities may not be as attractive to outside investors and businesses if they develop a reputation of being tied to the opioid epidemic.”

The lawsuit argues that the opioid epidemic has significantly and negatively impacted nearly every aspect of the county’s $26 million budget and the public services it provides, including health care, emergency medical services, social services, law enforcement and drug prevention, education and treatment.

Dickenson County has had to buy opioid antagonists such as naloxone – medications that can reverse drug overdoses. Moreover, the county has lost tax revenues because of the opioid crisis, the lawsuit said.

For example, the drug epidemic has affected the job market and workforce in Dickenson County. The Virginia Employment Commission reported last week that Dickenson’s unemployment rate in March was 6.6 percent – double the statewide rate. Dickenson had the fifth-highest jobless rate among Virginia’s 133 counties and cities.

Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, says these consequences can no longer be ignored.

“Dickenson County is on the tipping point of having an unemployable workforce,” Pillion said. “They have difficulty recruiting industry because the only articles in the news are talking about overdoses and opioids.”

Purdue responds: ‘No longer promoting opioids’

In response to the growing number of lawsuits brought against the company, Purdue Pharma announced in February that it would stop marketing opioid drugs to doctors.

“We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers,” the company said in a written statement.

Purdue officials said that they cut their sales staff in half in the week following the announcement and that the remaining staff would pivot to focus on other products.

Kevin Sharp, lead counsel for Dickenson County’s lawsuit, called the announcement a step in the right direction. But he said the damage already inflicted demands a more comprehensive response.

“There’s a lot more that has to be done to solve this problem,” Sharp said. “They have to remedy past harm. And the parties are going to have to work together to find out the best way to minimize – and end if possible – the harm that is being caused.”

Purdue Pharma has yet to file a response to the Dickenson County lawsuit but provided the following statement:

“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines with collaborative efforts to solve this public health challenge.

“Although our products account for less than 2% of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone.”

Expanding treatment for opioid addiction

In April 2017, the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services launched the Addiction Recovery and Treatment Services program to help increase access to treatment for Virginians battling opioid addiction.

The ARTS program was established primarily to help ease the burden on hospital emergency departments in treating patients with opioid-related issues, particularly in rural areas like Dickenson County.

The program expands treatment to Medicaid recipients by combining traditional medicine with counseling and other support systems. It also offers training and financial incentives to providers to encourage participation among outpatient treatment centers, doctors and hospitals.

“Providers are responding to the critical need for addiction treatment,” said Dr. Katherine Neuhausen, chief medical officer for DMAS. “Today, more than 350 new organizations are providing these life-saving services to Virginia Medicaid members. The number of outpatient opioid treatment services has increased from six to 108, including 79 office-based opioid treatment programs combining medication with counseling and other essential supports.”

According to an evaluation by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy, the program has increased the number of Medicaid recipients receiving treatment for opioid addiction by more than 50 percent, and the number of opioid-related emergency hospital visits by Medicaid recipients declined by nearly one third.

(Editor's Note: According to the data compiled as this story was researched, from 2007-2017 there have been 2 opioid-related deaths in the City of Emporia and 3 in Greensville County. During that time frame 3.2% of the total deaths in the City and 2.3% of the total deaths in the County were opioid-related as compared with the 35.5% mortality rate in Dickenson County - in both 2007 and 2011 more than half of the deaths in Dickenson County were opioid-related)

Southwest Virginia Legislator Targets Opioid Crisis

As a health care professional, state Del. Todd Pillion of Abingdon has a special perspective on the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the localities he represents in Virginia’s General Assembly.

Pillion, a pediatric dentist, has successfully sponsored key legislation to address the crisis. He represents the 4th House District, which includes Dickenson County and parts of Wise, Russell and Washington counties.

“Virginia has become a leader in passing not only legislation but regulations through the Board of Medicine and Dentistry,” Pillion said. “There’s no magic bullet – this epidemic isn’t going to go away no matter what we do. But we have seen improvements.”

During this year’s regular legislative session, the General Assembly passed three opioid-related bills introduced by Pillion, a Republican who was elected in 2014. Gov. Ralph Northam has signed the measures into law:

  • HB 1556 will add the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone and other Schedule 5 drugs for which a prescription is required to Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program. This will allow the Virginia Department of Health to monitor whether prescribers and dispensers are following state regulations and to deter the illegitimate use of prescription drugs. By adding naloxone to the list, officials can track if it is being co-prescribed with opiates in order to prevent fatal overdoses.
  • HB 1157 will require the Department of Health to develop and implement a plan of action for substance-exposed infants in Virginia. The plan must support a “trauma-informed approach” to identifying and treating substance-exposed infants and their caregivers, explore how to improve screening of substance-using pregnant women, and use multidisciplinary approaches to intervention and service delivery during the prenatal period and following birth.
  • HB 1173. Under current law, physicians who prescribe opioids are not required to request information from Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program as long as the prescription does not exceed 14 days and is treatment for a surgical or invasive procedure. HB 1173 eliminates the exception for prescriptions related to surgical and invasive procedures to bypass the PMP.

The three new laws will take effect July 1.

As College Tuition Rises, Senate Panel Kills Bill Mandating Public Input

By Lia Tabackman and Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In Fall 2010, Virginia Commonwealth University increased annual tuition by almost 24 percent, tacking $1,700 on to each in-state student’s bill in one fell swoop.

While that jump may seem like an outlier, tuition increases have been the norm at the state’s institutions of higher education during the past decade.

Public colleges and universities in Virginia have increased tuition by an average of 82 percent over the past 10 years. While various factors, including state budget cuts, contribute to tuition increases, these decisions take place at board meetings where it can be difficult for students and members of the public to make their voices heard.

Even so, a bill by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, to mandate public input on proposed tuition increases – as required in 10 other states – appears to be dead for this session.

HB 1473, which sought to require university trustees to hold a public comment period, unanimously passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 6. After the Senate Education and Health Committee voted 14-1 in favor of the bill, it then was sent to the Senate Finance Committee – which supporters saw as a bad omen.

They were right. On Tuesday, the Finance Committee killed the bill on a 6-4 vote. The next day, the committee reconsidered the matter – but the bill again was “passed by indefinitely,” 7-6.

The committee heard testimony from representatives of the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, as well as from representatives of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a progressive advocacy agency for college affordability.

“It’s bad enough that the cost of higher education in Virginia is spiraling out of control,” said James Toscano, president of the affordability group. “But failing to ensure the voices of students and parents are heard before public appointees set tuition is a blow to good governance and transparency.”

While Toscano argued that Miyares’ bill is important for transparency, Betsey Daley, U.Va.’s associate vice president for state governmental relations, said the measure was unnecessary, as emails from board members, the president and other officials are already available online.

“One public hearing is not a substitute for year-round input we have at U.Va.,” Daley said.

According to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia, there is an inverse relationship between state funding and the rate at which tuition increases at public colleges and universities. When the state provides support for these institutions, the colleges themselves are better able to control fluctuating tuition costs.

In 2010, for example, VCU felt the impact of a $40 million budget cut, the same year tuition increased by 23 percent.

Virginia has established a cost-share goal of the state funding 67 percent of university operations and students fronting the remaining 33 percent; however, the state is expected to pay only 47 percent in 2018. Students will carry 53 percent, a record high.

According to SCHEV, it would take more than $660 million in additional state revenue to reach the 67/33 cost-share goal. But doing so could lower tuition costs by $2,700.

In the meantime, Virginia students owe more than $30 billion in student loan debt.

SB 394, a bill that would create a state ombudsman for student loan issues, has unanimously passed in the Senate and appears to be on its way for House approval.

Virginia May Create Ombudsman to Help with Student Loans

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia legislators are seeking to mitigate the personal and economic consequences of their constituents’ student loan debt by creating a state-level ombudsman to troubleshoot problems and educate borrowers regarding college loans.

In 2017, more than 1 million Virginians owed more than $30 billion in student loan debt, state officials say. Nationally, student loan debt is more than $1.3 trillion and climbing.

“Virginians owe more on student loans than we do on credit cards or car loans, but only student loans lack consumer protections,” said Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a liberal advocacy group.

This week, the Senate and House each passed bills to create the Office of the Qualified Education Loan Ombudsman and establish a Borrower’s Bill of Rights. SB 394 passed the Senate unanimously on Monday; HB 1138 cleared the House, 94-5, on Tuesday.

Supporters say the ombudsman’s office would help college students secure loans and understand how to pay them off. They said the office also would establish a culture of transparency, fairness and open communication between loan providers and borrowers.

Besides reviewing and resolving borrower complaints, the ombudsman would educate loan borrowers about their rights and responsibilities and about potential problems such as late payments.

By December 2019, the ombudsman would develop a course for borrowers, half of whom are under 25.

“Too many student borrowers sign their names on the dotted line at only 18 or 19 years old without fully comprehending their rights and responsibilities associated with that debt, but also knowing that without those loans they would not be able to earn their degrees,” said Del. Maria “Cia” Price, D-Newport News, who sponsored HB 1138.

In addition, the Senate unanimously approved SB 362, which would require companies that handle the billing and other services on student loans to obtain a license from the State Corporation Commission.

Virginia is not the first jurisdiction to experiment with measures to protect student loan borrowers. Washington, D.C., established a student loan ombudsman and Borrower’s Bill of Rights a year ago.

The bipartisan approval of the legislation marks a win for Gov. Ralph Northam, who included the creation of a student loan ombudsman among his top priorities for the 2018 session.

Price also sponsored a bill that aimed to create a state agency to help Virginians refinance their student loan debt. HB 615 was killed on a 5-3 party-line vote in a House Appropriations subcommittee.

Nonpartisan Initiative Targets ‘Legalized Corruption’ In Virginia Politics

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Efforts to fight what some call “legalized corruption” in the Virginia General Assembly were announced Thursday by the Clean Virginia Project, a new nonpartisan initiative seeking to curb Dominion Energy’s financial influence on Virginia lawmakers.

The group called on lawmakers to refuse donations from Dominion Energy, the state’s largest electric utility, and offered to make political contributions to those who pledge to do so. The project’s organizers said they hope to curb the energy giant’s political influence and hold lawmakers accountable for “representing their constituents - not corporate interests.”

Delegates who sign the pledge would receive an annual political donation of $2,500 while senators would receive $5,000 — a fraction of what they might otherwise receive from Dominion.

Donating more than $11 million over the past decade to Democratic and Republican candidates alike, Dominion’s influence on the Virginia’s General Assembly is unparalleled by any other corporations. For comparison, Altria — one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of tobacco and headquartered in Henrico — donated less than $7 million over the same period of time.

Legislators from both parties, including Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, received donations from Dominion throughout the 2017 election season. While Northam accepted more than $100,000 in campaign and inaugural donations from the company in 2017 alone, Cox has accepted donations totaling more than $220,000 between 1998 and 2017.

Dominion’s funding efforts are primarily derived from the corporation’s political action committee but often come together with donations by corporate executives like Tom Farrell II, the company’s chairman, president and CEO, and Thomas Wohlfarth, the senior vice president of regulatory affairs.

Michael Bills, a Charlottesville-based investor and prominent Democratic donor, is the key funder behind the nonpartisan group, which is housed within former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello’s new political action committee, New Virginia Way.

The Clean Virginia Project is only one instance of a statewide attitude change toward the relationship between major corporations and lawmakers. It coincides with national efforts to encourage politicians to reject financial support from the energy industry.

This pushback has caused tension between Dominion officials and the group, with officials arguing that their company is being unfairly targeted for making campaign donations that are legal.

“Isn’t democracy great?" Dominion spokesman David Botkins said in an email to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "People can do whatever they want to with their money — as long as it’s transparently disclosed on Virginia’s Public Access Project website, which we helped start in 1997 and have supported ever since."

But Bills calls the initiative “common sense” that will level the playing field in politics.

“Virginians should no longer have to pick up the tab for backroom deals like the one Dominion and its allies are trying to ram through our legislature,” Bills said.

The announcement comes in the wake of Senate Bill 966, a quickly moving bill that would repeal a hotly debated 2015 rate freeze and provide Virginia customers with a refund on what Northam has called an “overcharging” for power rates.

In addition, SB 966 would require Dominion to reduce power rates by an additional $125 million as well as investmore than $1.1 billion in energy-efficiency projects and energy assistance to low-income communities throughout the next 10 years.

The text of the Clean Virginia Pledge reads:

“I will take no money or gifts from Dominion Energy or its Political Action Committees (PAC), lobbyists or executives; and will divest from any personal stocks or investments in Dominion Energy.”

As of Tuesday, Activate Virginia reported that 21 Democrats running for Congress this year have signed the pledge.

“Everyone will tell you that Dominion’s money doesn’t impact their vote, but given the fact that almost nobody says no to Dominion, I think that’s pretty obvious it has a large aggregate effect,” said freshman Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas.

House Committee Unanimously Kills ‘Netflix Tax’

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill nicknamed the “Netflix tax” was unanimously defeated Monday in the House Finance Committee, ending the possibility of taxing streaming services in Virginia in 2019.

Introduced by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, HB 1051 would have applied the state’s 5 percent communications sales and use tax not just to Netflix but to all online streaming services – among them Hulu, Spotify and HBO Go – that have skyrocketed in popularity, especially among millennials.

While the current communications tax applies to cable TV, satellite radio, landlines, cell phones and even pagers, streaming services are not included.

Watts said her bill was needed to modernize the state’s communications tax. “Obviously, the way we have continued to communicate has changed,” she said.

Watts told the committee that her bill would apply equal taxes to all forms of communication. “The best we can hope for is a fair tax structure,” she said.

According to the bill’s impact statement, the tax would generate nearly $8 million in revenue for the state – potentially allowing Virginia to become less dependent on other forms of taxes, like those collected through income and real estate levies.

The bill is not the first of its kind: Pennsylvania and Florida have passed laws that tax internet transactions and digital streaming services. But the tax has faced opposition from taxpayers, streaming services and industry trade groups.

The Finance Committee voted 22-0 against the bill. Watts voted against her own legislation, acknowledging that while the measure was not ready to be passed, she wanted to spur a larger conversation about Virginia’s tax structure.

Republicans said they were opposed taxing the heavily used services.

“Let’s be real clear in what we’re talking about here,” said Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax, chairman of the House Republican Caucus. “This is a Netflix tax. This is a Hulu tax. If you’re under 30, this is a tax on how you get your information, how you watch your TV, how you consume everything every day.”

Representatives from T-Mobile, Verizon and Sling TV attended the meeting and spoke against the bill, while the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties were in favor.

Neal Menkes of the Municipal League commented that he had “yet to hear a pager go off,” echoing Watts’ sentiments about the need to modernize tax law around a quickly changing communications landscape.

Bill Would Boost Minimum Wage for Restaurant Workers

By Caitlin Barbieri and Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The unstable nature of relying on tips to make a living is reflected in the paychecks of restaurant servers like Connor Rhodes, who has been serving Richmond’s restaurant goers for four years and says it’s not unusual for his paycheck to be zero dollars.

That’s because he earns $2.13 an hour – a “subminimum wage” – which, after taxes, can result in an empty wallet if tips are weak and shifts are sparse.

“Depending on business, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get shifts that can pay the bills,” Rhodes said, explaining that servers typically have to save their wages from peak seasons to survive during the slower months.

But two state legislators have proposed a bill, HB 1259, that would do away with the “subminimum wage,” which is paid to workers like Rhodes who are exempt from receiving the federal minimum.

That $2.13 an hour, along with tips, makes up the entire income of these workers. As long as the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is met through tips received, employers are not required to pay their employees more than the subminimum.

If customers neglect to tip their server after their meal, it can end up costing the server money to have served the table at all.

“At the end of the night, the servers have to tip out the food runners, the bartenders and the bussers based on our food and alcohol sales. So say someone orders $50 bottle of wine; I tip the bar 5 percent of that $50. I need at least $2.50 to break even from taking care of a customer, and sometimes the costs can go a lot higher. It’s rare that the restaurant will compensate us,” Rhodes said.

According to a 2014 report by the Economic Policy Institute, the median hourly wage for U.S. restaurant workers, tips included, was $10 an hour – compared with $18 an hour for workers in all other industries. After accounting for demographic differences, the report said restaurant workers earned 17 percent less than similar workers in other industries.

Under HB 1259, servers and certainother employees who are exempt from the minimum wage would no longer have to rely on the generosity of others, through tips, in order to meet the minimum wage.

HB 1259 was introduced by Dels. Paul Krizek and Jennifer Boysko of Fairfax. Eight other Democrats are co-sponsoring the measure. The bill would also make it illegal for employers to pay laborers in certain service industries traditionally held by African-Americans – like shoe-shiners and doormen – less than minimum wage.

Krizek said the legislation would “put everybody on the same minimum-wage playing field.”

Bill Seeks to Repeal ‘Racist’ Wage Law

By Caitlin Barbieri and Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – More than half a century after the end of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South, legislators are finding remnants of racism in Virginia law.

The Code of Virginia makes it legal for employers to pay less than minimum wage to “newsboys, shoe-shine boys, caddies on golf courses, babysitters, ushers, doormen, concession attendants and cashiers in theaters.”

The common thread among those professions? When the law was written in 1975, they were all considered low-income, low-skill jobs overwhelmingly occupied by African Americans who were systematically denied advanced employment opportunities.

Now, two members of the Virginia House of Delegates – Paul Krizek and Jennifer Boysko, both Democrats from Fairfax – are sponsoring legislation to delete such outdated language from state law.

“This is a list that has Jim Crow written all over it,” Krizek said. “There’s a lot of old language that was obviously aimed at African Americans who were in these service jobs because those were the jobs they could get at the time.”

The language was originally pulled verbatim from North Carolina’s legal code, which was written a decade earlier, in 1965.

“There is some fairly widespread agreement and research supporting the conclusion that a lot of these exemptions were based on race,” said Ann Hodges, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

The wage discrimination doesn’t stop at race. Virginians with mental, intellectual and physical disabilities also may receive subminimum wage because their “earning capacity is impaired,” according to the state code.

According to Hodges, at the time the law was written, many people believed that individuals with intellectual, physical and mental disabilities could not be as productive and generate as much labor as able-bodied workers.

“There was a sense that if you couldn’t pay them less, they probably wouldn’t be employed at all,” Hodges said.

Under HB 1259, it would no longer be legal in Virginia for employers to pay laborers in certain service industries less than minimum wage. (The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and Virginia has not adopted a higher level. However, Krizek, Boysko and other Democrats are pushing to raise it to $9 an hour this year and to $15 an hour by 2022.)

The bill would affect other employees, such as restaurant servers, in addition to the positions the sponsors say are directly connected to race.

“While doing research for a $15 minimum wage bill, I was angry and disappointed to learn that the Virginia Code includes exceptions to its minimum wage law that are clearly racist, meant to exclude jobs that have been mostly held historically by minorities,” Boysko said.

“As we continue to build our new Virginia economy, we must ensure that all people are treated fairly and have the same opportunities.”

HB 1259 has been assigned to the House Committee on Commerce and Labor.

Incoming and Outgoing Governors Outline Priorities

Gov.-elect Ralph Northam

Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (CNS photo by Lia Tabackman)

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As a priority for the legislative session that begins Wednesday, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Gov.-elect Ralph Northam are calling for universal background checks for gun sales.

“These measures are crucial for the safety of our communities,” McAuliffe said, citing a 51- percent increase in gun homicides in Virginia over the past five years.

Currently, only federally licensed firearms dealers must administer background checks. Under the proposed legislation, the background check requirement would be expanded to all dealers, including gun shows and private sales.

The Democrats held a joint press conference Tuesday to outline their priorities for the 2018 session of the General Assembly, in which Republicans have a narrow majority in both chambers.

Northam, who will be inaugurated as governor on Saturday, urged lawmakers to approve “no excuse” absentee voting. Under the proposed legislation, any registered voter could cast an absentee ballot, in-person, within 21 days of Election Day.

“Why would we make it more difficult for people to vote on Election Day?” McAuliffe asked. He called the proposal non-partisan and said it would simplify the voting process and decrease lines and waiting times on Election Day.

Northam and McAuliffe also advocated expanding access to Medicaid for 400,000 Virginians currently without health coverage. The two officials expressed support for language in the 2018-20 budget to provide Medicaid to Virginians who make too much to qualify under the program’s current income limits but can’t afford private health care.

During the 60-day legislative session, Northam also plans to pursue proposals to:

  • Ensure that campaign contribution funds donated to candidates and elected officials cannot be spent for personal use.
  • Raise the threshold for felony larceny from $200 to $1,000.
  • Implement a Borrower’s Bill of Rights and create a state ombudsman for student loans.
  • Have Virginia join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-based program to reduce carbon emissions. Virginia would be the first Southern state to join RGGI.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called the RGGI proposal “historic.”

“This announcement is likely the boldest single legislative commitment ever made by a Southern governor in the fight to reduce global warming pollution,” Tidwell said. “It marks a new era for Virginia and the nation. Even as federal efforts tragically shrink on climate change, state efforts are heroically growing – and Ralph Northam is now proof of that.”

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