COVID-19, News

Gov. Cooper bars utility shutoffs for 60 days

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office issued Executive Order No. 124 this afternoon, barring utility shutoffs in North Carolina for 60 days.

The following statement was issued late this afternoon:

Governor Cooper Signs Executive Order to Prohibit Utility Disconnections in the Wake of COVID-19 

RALEIGH: Governor Roy Cooper today announced another step to help families by prohibiting utilities from disconnecting people who are unable to pay during this pandemic. Today’s Order applies to electric, gas, water and wastewater services for the next 60 days.

The Order directs utilities to give residential customers at least six months to pay outstanding bills and prohibits them from collecting fees, penalties or interest for late payment.

Telecommunication companies that provide phone, cable and internet services are strongly urged to follow these same rules.

“This action is particularly important since tomorrow is the first of the month, and I know that’s a date many families fear when they can’t make ends meet,” said Governor Cooper. “These protections will help families stay in their homes and keep vital services like electricity, water, and communications going as we Stay at Home.”

Additionally, the Order encourages banks not to charge customers for overdraft fees, late fees and other penalties. Landlords are strongly encouraged in the Order to follow the spirit of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s Order and delay any evictions that are already entered in the court system.

Governor Cooper was joined by Attorney General Josh Stein to announce the order and he thanked companies that have already voluntarily announced policies to prevent shutoffs, including Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, AT&T, and local electric co-ops, among many others. Today’s Order follows the Governor’s Stay At Home order, which is in effect until April 29.

The Council of State concurred with the Order today.

Read the full Order here.

Read an FAQ about the Order here.

The NC Department of Revenue also announced expanded tax relief measures today, waiving penalties for late filing or payments of multiple state tax categories. Learn more about this tax relief here.

Make sure the information you are getting about COVID-19 is coming directly from reliable sources like the CDC and NCDHHS. For more information, please visit the CDC’s website at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus and NCDHHS’ website at www.ncdhhs.gov/coronavirus, which includes daily updates on positive COVID-19 test results in North Carolina.

Commentary, COVID-19

NC Attorney General takes welcome action to ease financial pressure on struggling households

Attorney General Stein

In case you missed it, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein took some welcome actions late last week to help ease some of the financial pressures afflicting households across the state.

In a news release, Stein announced that he has suspended “all of the North Carolina Department of Justice’s collections efforts of state debts effective immediately and until further notice.”

In addition, the A.G. issued a request to “all local and municipal utilities to commit to maintaining access to water, power, gas, and other vital services for residents.”

As Stein noted in his statement:

“North Carolinians who are struggling with their health, have been laid off from their job, or are facing cuts to their income in the wake of COVID-19 should not have to bear additional burdens that will further harm their health or their finances.”

The A.G. is on the mark. The last thing people need in the current environment is to face lawsuits and losses of essential services due to debts the crisis has made it impossible to pay back for the time being.

Let’s hope Stein’s action helps spur similar action by other governmental and private entities (e.g. landlords, loan companies) in the days and weeks ahead.

Commentary, COVID-19

Experts: Health pandemic exposes failure to expand Medicaid, reliance on employer-provided insurance

In case you missed it, there was a fine story on NBC News last week that highlighted North Carolina’s failure to expand Medicaid, and the huge and unnecessary problems it was causing for uninsured people even before the coronavirus pandemic.

Among other things, “Coronavirus challenges states that rejected Medicaid expansion, leaves uninsured with few options” tells the sobering story of a family physician who practices in Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s district confronting the crisis.

William Luking, a doctor in rural North Carolina who runs a clinic with his brother about 25 miles north of Greensboro, said he treated one of his regular patients last week who had a dry, hacking cough and trouble breathing. The longtime patient turned scarlet when Luking said he should go to the hospital.

Amid wheezing and a severe fever, Luking’s patient said he couldn’t afford that kind of care. He didn’t have insurance.

“How many folks with this virus are going to be making the same decision?” Luking asked, noting that Medicaid expansion would have provided his patient hospital access. “That same scenario will play itself out here real quickly with folks soldiering on doing their minimum wage work while carrying the virus without seeking care. It has all the makings of a disaster.”

Luking and doctors like him have gone to great lengths to treat their patients and made personal sacrifices because, as he said, “We’re not going to fold up shop now.”

But there’s a risk that they may have to. Luking said because he will mostly have to move to doctor’s visits over the phone, he will see fewer reimbursements and payments and a greater number of uninsured patients. He’s prepared to zero-out his own salary but fears he may soon have to lay off members of his staff to keep his facility afloat.

Meanwhile, in today’s Washington Post, Prof. Jonathan Gruber of MIT lays out three steps the U.S. must take to care for the huge surge in uninsured sick people that’s coming — both as a result of the failure to expand Medicaid in states like North Carolina and the huge number of people who are becoming uninsured through job losses. Here’s the conclusion:

First, we should suspend insurance network restrictions for covid-19 patients. Patients should be able to go to the provider that is best for them, and for the community, regardless of network restrictions. Read more

Commentary, COVID-19

Today’s must read: Why the U.S. approach to unemployment during the crisis is off-base

Be sure to check out an excellent op-ed in this morning’s New York Times by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman entitled “Enough with the baby steps on coronavirus.” In it, Saez and Zucman argue persuasively that the U.S. is missing the boat by doing much too little for workers and businesses in the current crisis. Among other things, they say, we should follow the lead of other countries by not just paying unemployment insurance benefits, but by prohibiting layoffs.

Instead of safeguarding employment, America is relying on beefed-up unemployment benefits to shield laid-off workers from economic hardship. To give just one example, in both the United States and Britain, the government is asking restaurant workers to stay home. But in Britain, workers are receiving 80 percent of their pay (up to £2,500 a month, or $3,125) and are guaranteed to get their job back once the shutdown is over. In America, the workers are laid off; they must then file for unemployment insurance and wait for the economy to start up again before they can apply for a new job, and if all goes well, sign a new contract and resume working.

Even if unemployment is generously compensated — as it is in the $2.2 trillion bill Congress passed — there is nothing efficient in letting the unemployment rate rise to double digits. Losing one’s job is anxiety inducing. Applying for unemployment benefits is burdensome. The unemployment system risks being swamped soon by tens of millions of claims. Although some businesses may rehire their workers once the shutdown is over, others will have disappeared. When social distancing ends, millions of employer-employee relationships will have been destroyed, slowing down the recovery. In Europe, people will be able to return to work, as if they had been on a long, government-paid leave.

Saez and Zucman also lament the crazy fact that millions will lose their health insurance due to layoffs:

The [relief] bill passed last week does nothing to reduce co-pays, deductibles or premiums on the insurance exchanges; nor does it reduce the price of COBRA. The next bill should introduce a Covidcare for All program. This federal program would guarantee access to Covid-19 care at no cost to all U.S. residents — no matter their employment status, age or immigration status. Fighting the pandemic starts with eradicating the spread of the virus, which means that everybody must be covered.

Covidcare for All would also cover the cost of Covid-19 treatments for people who are insured. Insurance companies would be barred in return from hiking premiums, which might otherwise spike as much as 40 percent next year.

Finally, the article calls for more support for businesses:

The United States also needs to ramp up its support to businesses. Since containing the epidemic requires government-mandated economic shutdowns, it is legitimate to expect the government, in return, to shelter businesses from the economic disruptions. To keep businesses alive through this crisis, the government should act as a payer of last resort. In other words, the government should pay not only wages of idled workers, but also essential business maintenance costs, like rents, utilities, interest on debt, health insurance premiums, and other costs that are vital for the survival of businesses in locked down sectors. This allows businesses to hibernate without bleeding cash and risking bankruptcy. Denmark was the first nation to announce such a program; it is being emulated by a growing number of countries, including Italy.

To prevent unjust windfalls, Saez and Zucman would impose an excess profits tax.

Their commonsense, bottom line take:

Some will say that the solutions we’ve outlined show excessive faith in government. They will correctly point out that some of these policies are undesirable in normal times. But these are not normal times. The big battles — be they wars or pandemics — are fought and won collectively. In this period of national crisis, hatred of the government is the surest path to self-destruction.

Click here to read the entire op-ed.

Commentary, COVID-19

Gun rights proponents need to calm down about Wake sheriff’s action

The coronavirus pandemic is requiring big individual sacrifices from just about all North Carolinians. Across our state, people are giving up their jobs, freedom of travel, and, in many instances (e.g. health care providers, first responders and even store clerks), putting their lives and health on the line every day to keep society functioning.

At such a time, the last thing we need is for the always-dissatisfied extremists in the NRA and their allies to start railing about modest delays in access to new firearm permits.

Amazingly, though, that’s what’s been happening in Wake County. When Sheriff Gerald Baker put a temporary, common sense hold on issuing new handgun permits to help curb the fast-growing crowds that had been gathering at his office to apply (and thereby threatening their own health and that of his deputies), several gun advocates went ballistic, calling it a massive assault on the 2nd Amendment.

Opportunistic politicians like State Sen. Warren Daniel blasted Baker’s action as being part of some monstrous plot to undermine the Constitution.

These critics need to chill out and stop fomenting paranoia.

Just yesterday, Baker’s office announced that 11 deputies are having to self-isolate because they’re experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Even Republican House Speaker Tim Moore pointed out this week that “we don’t people lined up at the DMV right now.” The same is obviously true with respect to sheriffs’ offices.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported:

The suspension will help the Sheriff’s Office and the Wake County Clerk of Courts clear the backlog of 755 pending applications.

The rush to apply for permits in Wake County led to lines out the door, which also made it difficult to maintain the social distancing that is needed to help prevent the spread of corronavirus, Curry said.

“We have to limit folks coming in contact with each other,” he said. “It was also a health concern for our staff.”

Similar action has been taken in other jurisdictions around the country.

The bottom line: Eligible applicants will get their permits in due time. But, for now, would-be gun purchasers need to understand that they – like everyone else in this extraordinary moment – may need to make some modest personal sacrifices for the common good.