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Lawmakers hear online legal advertising proposal

State, county, and municipal governments in West Virginia will spend $4.6 million on legal advertisements this year, according to a legislative audit released Monday. The audit proposes setting up an online state repository for those announcements, but a state newspaper advocate says legislators aren’t getting the full story.

The audit states that, as statewide online internet access improves and print newspaper circulation declines, the state should consider allowing agencies to post legal ads on an online repository maintained by the Secretary of State’s office, while giving counties, school boards, and municipalities the option to use the internet to post legal ads.

“It is the legislative auditor’s opinion that the use of electronic resources could be a way for the state, county, municipal governments, and other governmental entities to save money,” the audit states.

Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, questioned the audit’s methodology and conclusions Monday. “I think the information provided today was very incomplete, and not really reflective of the situation in West Virginia,” he said.

One of the findings in the audit that Smith questioned was that 82 percent of West Virginians have internet access, either through home internet or cellphones with broadband access.

“Just saying that many people have access isn’t the same as saying that system would work for those people,” he said. “Have you tried reading legal ads on a cellphone?”

Smith said the audit focused on costs of legal ads, while failing to note that many legal ads, such as those for delinquent taxes or property sales for unpaid taxes, have publication fees that more than pay for the cost of publishing the ads.

He also said the online proposal would mark a fundamental change in how people access legal ads.

“This proposal is asking people to go and search for legal advertisements, as opposed to having the ads delivered to them by our newspapers and our newspaper websites,” he said.

Smith attended Monday’s joint meeting of the interim Government Operations and Government Organization committees, but was not called on to comment. He also said the association had no input in the audit.

Also Monday:

  • An audit concluded that a nearly two-year lapse in certification by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for Sharpe Hospital in Weston cost the state $22 million.

Sharpe lost CMS certification in September 2017 for deficient patient treatment plans, and had to move all but forensic patients (court-committed for criminal acts) to other facilities, including private hospitals. CMS restored Sharpe’s certification in August.

Bill Crouch, state Health and Human Resources Secretary, told legislators Monday that losing CMS certification turned out to be a positive.

“It caused us to focus on those issues for our forensic population, and to make significant changes at that hospital,” he said.

Previously, civil patients (those involuntarily committed) were often kept on the same floors as forensic patients, including some who had committed murder, he said.

  • An audit of the state Board of Acupuncture found the board is largely in compliance with state regulations, but also found that, like many small professional licensing boards, it struggles with finances and staffing.

With limited revenue from licensure fees, the board does not have sufficient funding to hire a part-time director, and instead contracts for those services with the executive director of the Massage Therapy Board, who also has similar arrangements with the boards of Landscape Architects and Hearing Aid Dealers.

The audit recommends creating a multi-professional agency, with a staff that would oversee day-to-day operations for the state’s 20 smallest professional licensing boards, ranging from boards of Accountancy to Veterinary Medicine.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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