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RICHMOND – As the coronavirus pandemic lingers, so does the potential for coronavirus-related investment schemes. Scammers may take advantage of the situation to offer business opportunities for supposed miracle cures or purported innovative technologies to unsuspecting investors.

The State Corporation Commission’s (SCC) Division of Securities and Retail Franchising (Division), along with other securities regulators, are working to prevent coronavirus-related scams. The Division encourages Virginians to use caution when presented with investment opportunities touting products and services related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID-19-related schemes, like many other types of scams, often follow the headlines and prey on people’s fears and uncertainty,” said Division Director Ron Thomas. “Regardless of the type of investment scam, the red flags that an offer may be fraudulent are often the same.”

Thomas encourages Virginians to beware of unsolicited calls, emails or texts, or social media posts and other online promotions regarding investment opportunities that claim to be raising money for companies promising new health care products that can detect, treat or cure the coronavirus. These opportunities may include offers to invest in medical technology or healthcare companies by purchasing membership units in general or limited partnerships, stock, or other investment vehicles, such as private placement offerings, initial coin offerings or other cryptocurrency-related investments, or crowdfunding.

Thomas also urges Virginians to use caution when presented with investment opportunities promising high yield returns with little or no risk, or that offer trendy, complex or exotic investments. “Every investment opportunity carries some degree of risk that you could lose your money,” he said. He recommends using caution when considering investments that refer to returns as “passive income” or “cash flow” and promise to pay returns on a monthly basis.

“Before handing over your hard-earned money, research the investment and the person or company offering it and know where your money is going, how it will be used and how you can get it back,” Thomas said. He offers the following tips when considering any investment opportunity:

  • Do not invest money you cannot afford to lose.
  • Do your research. Ask for details about an investment opportunity and read the fine print. Ask about the risks and fees involved. Never invest in something you do not fully understand.
  • Always verify that an investment and the person offering it are licensed or registered by the appropriate securities regulator. In Virginia, you can find out by contacting the Division of Securities and Retail Franchising in Richmond at 804-371-9051 or toll-free at 1-800-552-7945.
  • Resist high-pressure sales tactics or “can’t miss” opportunities.
  • Be wary of participating in a general partnership or joint venture if you have no specific experience, knowledge or education in the industry sector – which is often the healthcare industry for coronavirus-related frauds – and would have to rely on others’ expertise.
  • Think twice before considering “research reports” or promotions claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect or cure coronavirus and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result.
  • Don’t always believe what you see. Con artists are often good at producing professional-looking websites boasting current productivity levels and profits with photos of vaccine or medical equipment production sites. These easily can be faked.

Additionally, Thomas encourages Virginians to report suspected fraudulent COVID-19 or other investment opportunities by contacting the Division of Securities and Retail Franchising at the numbers above or by visiting its website at scc.virginia.gov/pages/Securities-Retail-Franchising. For more information, visit the North American Securities Administrators Association’s website at www.nasaa.org/55847/the-coronavirus-is-novel-but-crisis-related-scams-are-nothing-new/?qoid=investor-advisories.

 

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Contact: Katha Treanor, 804-371-9141

Richmond - The Virginia Health Benefit Exchange continues preparations for the November 1 open enrollment period for 2021 health plans. The Virginia Exchange will operate on the federal exchange – HealthCare.gov – for 2021.

The Virginia Health Benefit Exchange was created by the 2020 Virginia General Assembly to be operated as a new division within the State Corporation Commission (SCC). It is expected to transition to a full state-based exchange by plan year 2023.

This month and throughout the transition, the Virginia Exchange will perform consumer outreach and education activities and offer consumer assistance. Last month the SCC appointed Victoria I. Savoy to direct the division.

A 15-member advisory committee is in place to advise and provide recommendations to the Commission and the director in carrying out the purposes and duties of the exchange.

The five members named by the Commission are:

  • Doug Gray - Virginia Associations of Health Plans
  • Lee Biedrycki – BeneFinder, an insurance agency
  • Sabrina Corlette – Georgetown University Health Policy Institute
  • Scott N. Castro – Medical Society of Virginia
  • Kenn Penn – ChamberSolutions (part of Virginia Chamber of Commerce)

The five members named by the Governor on September 4 are:

  • Chiquita Brooks-LaSure – Manatt Health Strategies
  • Elizabeth Cunningham – Virginia Legal Aid Society
  • Ikeita Cantu Hinojosa – formerly of D.C. Health Benefit Exchange Authority
  • Starla Kiser – Dickenson County Behavioral Health Services
  • Jane Norwood Kusiak – Virginia Health Care Foundation (board of advisors)

The five non-voting ex-officio members (or their designees) identified by statute are:

  • Scott White – Commissioner of Insurance
  • Karen Kimsey – Department of Medical Assistance Services Director
  • M. Norman Oliver – State Health Commissioner
  • Duke Storen – Commissioner of the Department of Social Services
  • Daniel Carey – Secretary of Health and Human Resources

The Virginia Exchange will be an online marketplace where qualified individuals can shop for, compare and enroll in health insurance coverage. Additionally, through the marketplace, small business employers may enroll eligible employees directly through qualified health plan issuers, qualified dental plan issuers, or licensed agents as established by the Virginia Exchange.

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Contact: Ken Schrad, 804-371-9858

RICHMOND – Rail Safety Week – the annual, nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the need for rail safety education – will appear differently this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) and others will observe the entire week (September 21-27) digitally.

SCC Rail Safety Manager Renee Salmon and VA Operation Lifesaver Coordinator Tracey Lamb agree that the goal is the same: to address head-on the need for rail safety awareness to combat the statistic that either a person or vehicle is hit by a train every three hours in the U.S., as reported by Operation Lifesaver, Inc. (OLI).

Although in-person events will not be possible this year, the SCC plans to share potentially life-saving information on its website and social media pages. OLI has assigned each day of Rail Safety Week its own safety theme:

  • Monday – Proclamations, Media Outreach;
  • Tuesday – Law Enforcement Partnerships;
  • Wednesday – Crossing Safety, Professional Drivers;
  • Thursday – Commuter and Transit Safety;
  • Friday – Wear Red for Rail Safety;
  • Saturday – Trespass Prevention;
  • Sunday – Photographer Safety.

“Rail safety is much more than just a single tip or slogan,” said Salmon. “It’s a set of guidelines for different groups of people, including children, first responders, media professionals, photographers, personal and professional drivers, and more.”

OLI is encouraged by a 76% decrease in nationwide collisions at U.S. highway-rail grade crossings over the past 40 years. “But there’s still more rail safety awareness work to do,” said Lamb.

This year’s digital focus is perhaps most appropriate for photographer safety, the seventh and final day of Rail Safety Week. Photo shoots and ‘selfies’ on train tracks may be tempting for posting on social media, but both activities are dangerous and illegal.

Both Lamb and Salmon acknowledge the same rail safety awareness statistic: “Trains can take a mile or more to come to a complete stop and overhang the track by at least three feet. Please never put yourself – or your clients – in harm’s way, and remember that people mimic your behavior when they see your photos on the web,” Lamb said.

Virginia Operation Lifesaver is administered by the SCC’s division of Utility and Railroad Safety, which offers education sessions virtually and can be reached at Virginia@oli.org. Keep an eye out for the SCC’s digital messaging during Rail Safety Week. In the meantime, check out the SCC’s full list of resources at scc.virginia.gov/pages/Railroad-Regulation.
 

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Contact: Ford Carson, 804-371-9141

RICHMOND – The general moratorium on utility shutoffs is extended through October 5, 2020. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) issued the order following a request from Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam. The moratorium was originally set to end on September 16.

In a letter to the Commission on September 14, the Governor said, “My request for an extension will give the General Assembly the time they need to address this issue, finalize their budget, and complete their important work during this special session.”

In granting another extension, the Commission said it will not extend the moratorium beyond October 5, 2020. The Commission urged the Governor and General Assembly to appropriate funds for direct financial assistance to those customers who are unable to pay their bills due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission said, “We hope the General Assembly uses this additional time to act on this recommendation.”

The Commission wrote, “Since we first imposed the moratorium on March 16, 2020, we have warned repeatedly that this moratorium is not sustainable indefinitely. The mounting costs of unpaid bills must eventually be paid, either by the customers in arrears or by other customers who themselves may be struggling to pay their bills. Unless the General Assembly explicitly directs that a utility's own shareholders must bear the cost of unpaid bills, those costs will almost certainly be shifted to other paying customers.”

The SCC’s latest extension order means the moratorium will have been in place for more than six months. It was originally imposed on March 16, 2020, as an emergency measure to protect customers from the immediate economic impacts of the COVID crisis.

The end of the Commission-directed moratorium on October 5 does not mean the end of protections for customers in arrears who are making a good-faith effort to pay their bills over a longer time period. Customers who enter such extended payment plans with their utilities will continue to be protected from service cut-offs even after the end of this moratorium.

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Case number PUR-2020-00048 - View Additional Order on Moratorium
Contact: Ken Schrad, 804-371-9858

RICHMOND – Staying connected and having access to local emergency services and community resources is more important than ever during the COVID-19 public health emergency. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) is partnering with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners and the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates during “National Telephone Discount Lifeline Awareness Week” September 14-18, 2020.

Lifeline, a federal program, offers a monthly discount of up to $9.25 toward phone or broadband services for eligible consumers and is available through certain local telephone and wireless companies. The goal of this nationwide outreach effort is to increase awareness about the Lifeline program and provide information to qualified participants. In addition to falling below a certain income level, you could be eligible if you participate in one of these federal assistance programs: 

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
  • Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit

Participants are limited to one Lifeline benefit per household. Participating companies can provide assistance with enrollment. A new option – the National Verifier (www.checklifeline.org) – makes it easier for consumers to assess eligibility and sign up for Lifeline. The SCC encourages Virginians to contact companies from whom you wish to receive service since not all companies are required to offer Lifeline service.

To learn more about Lifeline and the National Verifier, and to see if you are eligible, call 1-800-234-9473 or email lifelinesupport@usac.org or visit www.lifelinesupport.org or the FCC website at  www.fcc.gov/lifeline-consumers. You may also contact Lean Sorini with Universal Service Administrative Co., the company that administers the Lifeline program, at 202-772-6274 or at LifelineProgram@usac.org.

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Contact: Katha Treanor, 804-371-9141

RICHMOND – The State Corporation Commission’s (SCC) new Virginia Health Benefit Exchange (Exchange) has awarded navigator grants to Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC) and Boat People SOS, Inc. (BPSOS). The grants will support the work of these organizations to help Virginians navigate, shop for and enroll in health insurance coverage through HealthCare.gov.

VPLC received nearly $1.5 million in grant money. VPLC established “ENROLL Virginia!,” a statewide consortium of community-based and consumer-focused nonprofits that educates Virginians about the health insurance marketplace. BPSOS was awarded a $365,000 grant. BPSOS is a national nonprofit headquartered in Northern Virginia with a focus on serving the Asian-American community in that area.

VPLC has served as a navigator organization since the federal grant program began in 2013 to assist individuals, small employers and their employees as they look for health coverage options through the health benefit exchange and the small employer health options (SHOP) marketplace. BPSOS has served Virginians in a similar role for the past five years.

Navigators help consumers understand health insurance plan options and assist them in applying for government subsidies through the health benefit exchange. They are not affiliated with or funded by any health insurer, and their services are free of charge to the consumer. Although they are not required to be licensed, navigator individuals must complete an annual certification with the Exchange and a registration process with the Bureau of Insurance that includes updated training each year.

Virginia’s navigators have previously been funded through federal grant programs. Virginia is establishing a state-based health insurance exchange for the individual and small business markets. The Virginia Exchange will operate on the federal exchange platform – HealthCare.gov – for plan years 2021 and 2022, and is expected to transition to a full state-based exchange by plan year 2023. Beginning this fall, the Virginia Exchange will perform consumer outreach and education activities and offer consumer assistance.

“We are excited to be able to provide increased grant funding for navigators this year,” said Virginia Insurance Commissioner and Acting Exchange Director Scott White. “The navigator organizations have an excellent network designed to increase awareness about opportunities to obtain lower cost comprehensive coverage that may be available for individuals through HealthCare.gov. Even if you already have coverage, make sure to review your options each open enrollment period to find the option best suited for your circumstances.” 

Navigators are available to assist Virginia residents in obtaining individual health insurance coverage during open enrollment for plan year 2021 that begins November 1, 2020, and ends on December 15, 2020. They also are available to assist residents throughout the year with post-enrollment questions and issues that arise, and special enrollment qualifications. Navigators also assist consumers throughout the year to provide information about other coverage options, such as the State Medicaid Program and FAMIS for children.

Navigators assist small employers and their employees in reviewing plan options via the SHOP marketplace. The Small Business Health Care Tax Credit is only available to employers who purchase a SHOP plan and meet other IRS requirements.

A locator tool to find free assistance from a navigator or other assister in your area can be accessed at coverva.org/assistance. Information and help for small employers is available at coverva.org/business.

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Contact: Katha Treanor, 804-371-9141

RICHMOND – Virginians who lost their health insurance any time this year may have a new opportunity to enroll in health insurance coverage at HealthCare.gov.

Millions of people nationwide have lost their employer-based health insurance due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on many businesses. Normally, people who lose their insurance get a 60-day special enrollment period (SEP) to enroll in coverage on HealthCare.gov. The emergency declaration by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) enables consumers who missed their 60-day deadline to still enroll in coverage if they missed the deadline earlier this year. According to the FEMA SEP fact sheet, instead of asking whether an applicant has lost coverage within the last 60 days, the application asks whether they have lost coverage since January 1, 2020. As part of the process, applicants may need to provide proof of their loss of insurance coverage and the date that coverage ended.

The FEMA SEP has begun for the HealthCare.gov electronic application process. If someone was eligible to obtain coverage through an SEP at some point this year and failed to enroll, they may still qualify for coverage. Their coverage could begin as early as next month or even extend back to their initial date of eligibility. Additionally, enrollment during the SEP does not preclude people from receiving discounts that may be offered on their health insurance at HealthCare.gov.

“Losing your job doesn’t have to mean losing your health insurance coverage,” said Virginia Insurance Commissioner Scott A. White. “Consumers impacted by COVID-19 now have another chance to enroll in quality, affordable coverage.”

The FEMA SEP is not limited to people who lost their health insurance coverage due to loss of employment. People who lost coverage any time this year – due to job loss or for other reasons – may now qualify for the FEMA SEP directly through the HealthCare.gov application process. People who experienced life changes other than job loss (for example, having a baby or moving) may also qualify, even if they missed the normal SEP deadline, if their life was affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. Persons interested in obtaining coverage through the FEMA SEP should contact the HealthCare.gov call center at 800-318-2596 for more information.

In most cases, people who have not had any SEP-qualifying events since January 1, 2020, are not eligible for the FEMA SEP, but they will be able to sign up for health insurance for 2021 during the regular open enrollment period, which starts on November 1, 2020, and ends on December 15, 2020. Many people may also be eligible for Medicaid, which is open year-round, and those who need coverage may view their options at HealthCare.gov.

For more information, visit coverva.org/assistance or www.healthreformbeyondthebasics.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/FEMA-SEP-fact-sheet.pdf.

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Contact: Katha Treanor, 804-371-9141

 

RICHMOND – Virginia is establishing a state-based health insurance exchange for the individual and small business market. The Virginia Health Benefit Exchange will operate on the federal exchange – HealthCare.gov – for 2021. Open enrollment to select a Virginia health plan for 2021 will begin on November 1, 2020.

The Virginia Health Benefit Exchange was created by the 2020 Virginia General Assembly to be operated as a new division within the State Corporation Commission (SCC). It is expected to transition to a full state-based exchange by plan year 2023.

Beginning this fall and throughout the transition, the Virginia Exchange will perform all consumer outreach and education activities and offer consumer assistance.

The Commission has appointed Victoria I. Savoy to direct the division. There will also be a 15-member advisory committee to advise and provide recommendations to the Commission and the director in carrying out the purposes and duties of the exchange.

The Virginia Exchange will be an online marketplace where qualified individuals can shop for, compare and enroll in health insurance coverage. Additionally, through the marketplace, small business employers may enroll eligible employees directly through qualified health plan issuers, qualified dental plan issuers, or licensed agents as established by the Virginia Exchange.

The Virginia Exchange already offers information about Certified Application Counselor Designated Organizations (CDOs), Certified Application Counselors (CACs), and Navigators on the SCC website at: https://scc.virginia.gov/pages/Exchange.

Savoy joins the Commission on September 21. Most recently, she has been the assistant dean for Finance and Administration for the School of Pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is returning to the SCC after 13 years in higher education in various capacities overseeing the financial operations of those institutions, including the University of Virginia.

Savoy previously worked at the SCC from 1993 to 2007. In addition to serving as the assistant deputy commissioner of the life and health section of the SCC’s Bureau of Insurance, she was the chief financial auditor in the Bureau’s financial regulation section.

A licensed certified public accountant, Savoy earned her degree in accounting from Virginia Tech and a master’s degree in the management of information technology at the University of Virginia.

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Contact: Ken Schrad, 804-371-9858

RICHMOND – Hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and a pandemic – 2020 has already been a year filled with disasters. During National Preparedness Month (NPM) each September, we’re reminded that, no matter what the disaster, the time to plan is now.

Promoting the theme “Disasters Don’t Wait. Make Your Plan Today,” during NPM, individuals and communities are encouraged to develop a plan, assemble a supply kit (including COVID-related supplies), prepare for disasters, and teach disaster preparedness to youth.

With the midpoint of hurricane season upon us, disaster planning is more important than ever. There have already been 13 named storms during the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, which began June 1 and runs through November 30. Late August to early October is often the most active and dangerous time for tropical cyclone activity.

No matter where you live in Virginia, hurricanes and their accompanying winds and rains can threaten lives and property. Once a hurricane develops in the Atlantic Ocean, it will be difficult to find an insurance company willing to write related coverage until the storm threat passes.

The State Corporation Commission’s (SCC) Bureau of Insurance (Bureau) reminds Virginians to assess their risk, review their insurance coverage and know what to do before and after a hurricane or other disaster strikes. Review your insurance policy carefully to make sure you have enough coverage in the event of a disaster. Know what your policy does and does not cover. Contact your insurance agent or company or the Bureau of Insurance if you have questions.

“Protect yourself physically and financially. Take steps now to ensure you have the coverage you need if disaster strikes,” said Virginia Insurance Commissioner Scott A. White. “Ask your insurance company or agent how you can minimize property damage and, if such damage occurs, how to expedite the processing of claims with your insurance company.”

The Bureau suggests preparing a complete inventory of your personal property including serial numbers, photographs and videos. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners’free smartphone app – myHOME Scr.APP.book – can facilitate this process. Keep your home inventory and your insurance policies in a safe place and take them with you if you evacuate.

Keep in mind that homeowners insurance policies issued in Virginia generally do not provide coverage for damage to your home and belongings due to flood, surface water, or storm surge.  However, flood insurance is available through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). To learn more, contact your insurance agent or the NFIP at 1-888-225-5356 or visit www.floodsmart.gov. There is typically a 30-day waiting period for a new flood insurance policy to take effect. 

Ask your agent if your homeowners policy contains a special deductible for wind or hurricane losses. These deductibles are applied separately from any other deductible on a homeowners policy and may be written as a flat amount, such as $1,000, or applied to a loss as a percentage of the insurance coverage on the dwelling. The deductible is the amount that you are responsible for paying before the insurance company pays its portion of the claim.

If your property is damaged by a hurricane or other disaster, call your insurance agent or company as soon as possible. Make any necessary emergency repairs and take reasonable steps to prevent further damage to your property. Record all damage to your property and include photographs, notes and repair-related receipts.

The Bureau of Insurance stands ready to assist consumers with their insurance-related questions and concerns. Contact the Bureau’s Property and Casualty Division toll-free at 1-877-310-6560 or in Richmond at 804-371-9185. The Bureau also offers free consumer guides for homeowners and commercial property owners with information about what to do when a disaster strikes. These and many other insurance guides are available on it’s website at www.scc.virginia.gov/pages/Insurance.

For additional emergency preparedness information relating to hurricanes and other types of disasters, visit the Virginia Department of Emergency Management website at www.vaemergency.gov or www.ready.gov/.

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Contact: Katha Treanor, 804-371-9141

RICHMOND – Despite hundreds of COVID-related investment scams nationwide, Virginia has, fortunately, experienced almost none.

“I think this speaks to the proactive approach we’ve taken,” said Danny Taylor, manager of enforcement with the State Corporation Commission’s Division of Securities and Retail Franchising (Division). Other state and provincial regulators with the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) say they have taken action against more than 200 alleged investment scams. The Division currently has just one open COVID-related investment investigation in the Commonwealth.

Taylor pointed to the Division’s membership in NASAA’s COVID-19 Enforcement Task Force, which it joined in May, as one example of the preemptive steps it has taken to help protect Virginia investors from COVID-related investment scams. The Task Force consists of securities regulators from the United States, Canada and Mexico, who exchange information and are working toward the same goal.

“There’s tremendous strength in unifying our efforts to address these types of multi-jurisdictional frauds and we’re proud to be part of it,” Taylor said.

Taylor stressed the need to remain vigilant against COVID-19 scams and warned potential investors to avoid the following:

  • giving out your passwords or Social Security number;
  • trusting suspicious websites (NASAA’s task force identified as many as 200,000 coronavirus-related domains by mid-April);
  • considering work-from-home opportunities without properly vetting them;
  • investing in companies that claim to have COVID-19 cures, most of which are unsubstantiated.

“People often get caught up in the ‘fear of missing out’ on a profitable investment experience. Fraudsters prey on this emotion, so it’s important to reinforce to investors the need to do their research and be wary of promotions that seem too good to be true,” Taylor said.

He encourages investors to report any suspected fraudulent COVID-19 or other investment opportunities by contacting SRF at 804-371-9051, toll-free at 1-800-552-7945, or online at www.scc.virginia.gov. For more information, investors may also visit the NASAA website at www.nasaa.org.

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Contact: Ford Carson, 804-371-9141

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