The expired extension of telephonic and video reverse mortgage counseling for residents in Massachusetts took one step closer to being resolved this week, with the State Senate passing a bill that would allow for remote counseling relief to be extended through the middle of this summer. This is according to original reporting by the Massachusetts-based State House News Service, the language of the bill as debated, and reverse mortgage professionals who reside within the state.
While the first step toward an extension of the reverse mortgage counseling relief was made last week after a bill was passed in the state’s House of Representatives, the Senate version of the bill differs significantly enough to warrant a reconciliation process between the two chambers so that the measure can proceed to Gov. Charlie Baker (R)’s desk to be codified into law.
While this is sure to be a welcome occurrence for reverse mortgage businesses operating in the state, the measures being debated by the legislature now still fall short of a permanent fix to the underlying issue of the state’s face-to-face counseling requirement. That provision of the state’s law is currently under additional stress due to the shortage of counselors approved by both the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The new bill, differences with the House version
In terms of its reverse mortgage counseling application, the language of the House and Senate versions of the bill are identical. Both bills instruct the legislature to simply replace the prior reverse mortgage counseling relief expiration date of December 15, 2021 with a new date of July 15, 2022.
Getting that extension passed is more complex due to other measures in the legislation aiming to provide additional relief to state residents stemming from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, and key differences in the scope of both the House and Senate versions of the bill according to original reporting by the Massachusetts-based State House News Service, which thoroughly reports on matters of state politics.
Generally speaking, the Senate version is largely similar to the $55 million House version passed one week ago and includes $30 million to establish and expand COVID-19 testing, which includes $5 million to increase youth vaccination rates. An additional $25 million would also be appropriated for purchasing N95 and KN95 masks for school districts and other organizations.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Michael J. Rodrigues (D) explained, however, that the Senate version “expanded to a great degree the scope of the bill,” according to the reporting. Part of this comes from new additions including mask distribution to early childhood education organizations, as well as eldercare facilities.
Debate also saw additional appropriations for more testing, with the total additions to the House version bringing the complete cost of the new bill to $75 million, $20 million over the version passed in the House.
“The bill would also extend some of the policies originally adopted in 2020 to reflect the realities of the pandemic era, like authorization for remote public meetings, remote notarization and remote reverse-mortgage counseling,” the Service reported.
HUD awareness, reverse mortgage industry response
This past Wednesday, a reverse mortgage lender sent an alert to its broker partners erroneously stating that phone and video counseling relief in the state had already been restored, according to review of the alert and verification of the state bill’s current status by RMD.
Earlier this week, Deputy Assistant Secretary in HUD’s Office of Housing Counseling David Berenbaum told RMD that while his office is aware of the situation in Massachusetts, the office does not have a position on the structure of counseling laws in the state. He added, however, that remote counseling options need to be explored further given the current times.
“We have been supporting our counseling groups locally in Massachusetts and elsewhere, to try to provide sound information on how housing counseling is provided and how it is regulated,” Berenbaum said. “We do firmly believe that counseling provided on a basis which may involve virtual counseling or telephonic counseling has become rather the norm across the country and frankly, there are many associated online [and] educational tools that consumers benefit [from] in that process.”
Interestingly, a state legislator in Pennsylvania recently announced that she would seek fellow sponsors for a bill that would create a face-to-face counseling requirement similar to the one in Massachusetts, though her proposal also includes alternatives if a face-to-face meeting cannot take place.
Next steps, recent Mass. reverse mortgage counseling history
Reverse mortgage professionals and counselors within Massachusetts are hopeful for a resolution soon. Last month, the previous remote counseling relief expired and caught the reverse mortgage industry off guard since longer-term solutions designed to allow for the continuation of phone or video-based counseling have been deliberated for months, predating the last extension of the deadline that was handed down in June, 2021.
At that point, Gov. Baker extended the pre-existing deadline allowing telephonic and video counseling an additional six months. While a bill that aimed to permanently address the in-person counseling requirement was filed as early as March 2021, the proposed legislation appears to be stalled without additional deliberation based on publicly-filed information made available by the Massachusetts state legislature.
Both the Massachusetts Mortgage Bankers Association (MMBA) and in-state reverse mortgage professionals have described a persistent lack of available counselors approved by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs and HUD. That shortage of available counselors remains the most immediate concern for the reverse mortgage business related to the state’s expired relief, and is only compounded by seniors’ anxiety related to COVID-19.
During the COVID-19-induced state of emergency, more than 400 counseling sessions have been conducted through video or telephonic means according to MMBA, a measure taken to decrease the likelihood that older Massachusetts residents would be exposed to COVID-19 or its more aggressive variants. Massachusetts remains the only state in the country that requires reverse mortgage counseling sessions to be completed in person, and like much of the rest of the nation is grappling with a new wave of COVID-19 infections brought on by the more virulent “Omicron” variant.
In March of 2020 during the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, reverse mortgage business within Massachusetts was effectively shut down due to the imposition of virus mitigation measures and physical distancing requirements handed down by both state and federal health authorities, in concert with a state of emergency as declared by Gov. Baker. This led to the first initial counseling relief measure.