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Despite Budget, AARP Members See Some Wins in General Assembly

As Virginia’s lawmakers tackled a bleak state budget, AARP members and consumers gained some ground with consumer protection legislation during the 2010 General Assembly.

Limitations on car title lenders, preventing a withdrawal from the Medicaid program and strengthening consumer measures were on AARP Virginia’s legislative radar this year.

In a victory for low-income and disabled people who depend on Medicaid, House Bill 345 was tabled, preventing the state of Virginia from dropping out of the federal program. The bill would have permitted Virginia to withdraw from the federal health insurance program for the poor if federal health insurance reform passes. The federal law will extend Medicaid to more people.

Lawmakers reigned in car title lenders by imposing restrictions on the length of loans and setting maximum interest rates, as well as requiring the lenders to be licensed. Senate Bill 606 permits lenders to charge 15 percent to 22 percent interest per month, depending on the amount of the loan. The companies could not lend more than 50 percent of the vehicle's value, and borrowers must own the car.

The bill would require the loan be repaid in full within one year, and at least 8.25 percent of the principal must be paid each month. The bill allows lenders to continue to charge interest on those who are in default for more than 60 days if they try to hide the vehicle. It also requires the lender to pay for the cost of repossessing and storing a vehicle if it does not give borrowers a 10-day written notice that it plans to take the vehicle. If a notice is given, the cost falls to the borrower.

The General Assembly strengthened measures that will help protect older Virginians from financial exploitation and assist in end-of-life planning. Lawmakers passed a bill making Power of Attorney documents uniform, bringing Virginia in line with other states. They also passed an Advanced Medical Directives bill that would protect patients by permitting an advocate to be appointed a medical decision-maker for them.

AARP Virginia also encouraged lawmakers to block or amend several pieces of legislation that could have led to higher electric rates. Proposals on the table included bills to allow utility companies to adopt “smart meters” that track when electricity is used, allowing utilities to charge customers more for use during high-demand times of the day.

AARP argued that if such smart meters were installed, lawmakers must ensure such safeguards as requiring utilities to regularly provide data to regulators on the financial impact on consumers and how well the metering systems were working to reduce peak demand. AARP believes participation in such programs should be voluntary and that the State Corporations Commission should require utilities to implement consumer education programs on both the costs and benefits.

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