Health council creates ‘principles’ for expanded health insurance coverage in NC

The NC Council for Health Care Coverage worked Friday to put the final touches on a set of principles that it hopes will guide legislators and the Cooper administration toward getting health insurance for more North Carolinians.

The large group of lawmakers, employers, insurers and others have met under the auspices of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy since last month to come up with goals for expanded health insurance coverage.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, created the bipartisan group. He pushed for Medicaid expansion in his first term as the way to get more adults insured. Opponents in the Republican-controlled legislature  have said they worry about costs to the state. Medicaid expansion has never come to a vote. The federal government pays 90% of Medicaid expansion costs.

According to the Census Bureau American Community Survey data, 46% of North Carolinians got health coverage through employers, 18% used Medicaid, 15% used Medicare, 12% were uninsured, 7% were paying for insurance through the individual market, and 2% were insured through the military in 2019.

On Friday, at the council’s last meeting, Cooper called the principles “truly bipartisan,” reflecting a range of perspectives.

Cooper said he remains a strong supporter of Medicaid expansion. “This council has demonstrated there are many ideas and perspectives and proposals that need to be considered as we look to solutions that are right for our state,” he said. “The pandemic has exposed a lot of these challenges that we are already facing and it has magnified those challenges.

The Council on Friday worked to refine its draft principles, which are:

  • Maximize health care coverage
  • Program simplicity
  • Enhance the health of North Carolina
  • Efficient use of tax dollars
  • Strengthen rural communities
  • Reduce disparities by geography, race, and ethnicity
  • Expand access to and coverage of behavioral health services
  • Support the business community, both for profit and non-profit

Some Council members Friday said they didn’t want Medicaid expansion to get lost in the stack of other ideas. Others emphasized help for small businesses.

Nearly all North Carolina businesses with 1,000 or more workers offer health insurance, according to information the state Department of Health and Human Services presented at a meeting earlier this month. About half of businesses with 10-24 workers offer health insurance as an employee benefit, while 15.3% of businesses with fewer than 10 employees offer health insurance.

Rep. Carla Cunningham, a Charlotte Democrat, said it was expensive to pay a living wage and offer health insurance when she ran a small business.

Andy Ellen, president of the NC Retail Merchants Association, said small businesses are in competing for workers with larger businesses who offer health insurance with lower premiums.

Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat, said unaffordable insurance affects Durham tech startups and small rural businesses.

“It’s hurting small business and it’s hurting entrepreneurship,” Woodard said.

Biden orders tougher mask rules as part of overhauled COVID-19 strategy

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s first policy focus after being sworn in? Overhauling the disjointed federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed another 4,400 American lives on his first day in office alone.

“The brutal truth is, it’s going to take months before we can get the majority of Americans vaccinated,” Biden said Thursday. “So while we increase vaccinations, we’re going to take steps necessary now to slow the spread of the disease.”

One of the initial executive orders he signed Wednesday requires mask-wearing and physical distancing in all federal buildings, on all federal lands, and by federal employees and contractors, plus a broad call for Americans to mask up during the next 100 days.

He followed that on Thursday with another mask-wearing directive — requiring their use on airplanes, trains and other public transportation — as well as rolling out a national strategy for combating the virus. 

Those steps by Biden mark a sharp shift from his predecessor, who repeatedly downplayed the public health threat and refused to wear a face mask. The Trump administration had left it up to states to craft their vaccine distribution plans, but didn’t push Congress to provide additional money, even as state officials sought more help for the mammoth task before them.

States also have complained about receiving too little or shifting information about vaccine shipments from Operation Warp Speed, the task force set up under the last administration to deliver vaccine doses.

More vaccine centers, more masking

Biden’s plan calls for more masking, testing, treatment and data.

He’s seeking to give states a boost in their vaccination efforts; fix supply shortages; support school reopenings; and improve equity in the pandemic response across racial, ethnic and geographic lines.

He aims to get 100 new federally supported vaccine centers operating by the end of February, and to provide staff to help run them.

Perhaps most of all, his administration says it wants to rebuild trust in the federal government’s statements about and response to the pandemic.

“Our national strategy is comprehensive. It’s based on science, not politics. It’s based on truth, not denial. And it’s detailed,” Biden said Thursday afternoon as he outlined his new coronavirus actions.

Among other changes, Biden’s 10 COVID-related executive orders and other directives would: Read more

NC prison inmates and staff started getting vaccinated this week

The Department of Public Safety announced that it will finish administering the inaugural 1,300 doses of vaccines it received this week at a press conference today.

As of Wednesday, 534 staff and 49 inmates had been vaccinated within 24 hours after the DPS received the doses from the Department of Health and Human Services, said Todd Ishee, Commissioner of Prisons. Ishee said both staff and residents exhibit an increased level of interest in being vaccinated.

Inmates aged 75 and older are among the first group eligible to be vaccinated. Individuals are free to decide whether they wish to be vaccinated or not.

“We see the vaccine as a pathway out of this terrible and tragic pandemic,” Tim Moose, chief deputy secretary at of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice said at the press conference.

Moose said DPS will have vaccinated health care workers and those over 75 by the end of next week, and then move on to the 65–74 age group.

Central, Maury, Scotland and Alexander prisons serve as the four regional hubs for distribution to the 55 correctional facilities statewide. Ishee said the process, in which the National Guard has partnered with DPS, has gone “extremely smooth.”

Prisons medical director Dr. Les Campbell said DPS will receive weekly allocations based on the previous week and the availability of vaccine shots from the CDC until its has fully vaccinated the population. He maintained that the department also conducts rigorous contact tracing and has been using single cells and spreading out inmates for social distancing purposes to curb outbreaks.

At present, 536 prison staff members are off work because of COVID infection themselves or exposure to the virus. As of Thursday, about one-third of the 108,614 offenders connected to overseen by DPS (inmates, probationers, individuals under post-release supervision) have been tested with 404 active cases. There have been 41 reported deaths related to COVID-19 at 17 correctional facilities statewide, according to DPS.

NC Health Secretary praises Biden pandemic plan, stresses need for greater vaccine access

North Carolina Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen praised President Joe Biden’s executive mask mandate on Thursday saying that it goes hand-in-hand with the what North Carolina has been doing for more than six months.

“We know how this virus spreads, we know that masks work. That consistent message about masks is going to be really, really critical,” Cohen said.

(North Carolina Health and Human Service Secretary Mandy Cohen)

Cohen said she appreciates the “broad strokes” of the Biden administration’s plan, and has shared concerns about the need for better communication about the allocations coming to the state.

Dr. Cohen said a discrepancy in CDC data shows North Carolina has only administered 38% of the vaccines it had received.

“Our own vaccine dashboard shows more than half-a-million vaccinations, CDC does not reflect that. We need better communication and coordination of the same information.”

Another area where North Carolina is seeking federal support is in increasing access to the COVID vaccines.

North Carolina receives an average of 120,000 vaccines a week with local shipments coming in on Wednesdays. Health departments and community partners often don’t know until the end of the week the quantity that they will have for the following week.

Still state officials are urging local health providers not to hold back any of the vaccine that they have on hand.

“We’ve worked through getting out the vaccines that we have on the shelf, and I think you are going to hear more and more ‘We need more’,” said Cohen. “That has been our consistent message, is that we have limited supply and it’s going to take some time for us to get vaccine to everyone who wants it.”

Executive orders signed by President Biden on Thursday will give the states clearer projections on vaccine availability.

The new administration has also pledged to use the Defense Production Act to increase the supply of glass vials and syringes, all necessary components in getting more vaccine into American arms.

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert,  told reporters that he still expects most people will be able to get vaccinated by the middle of this year.

Click here to read the National Strategy for COVID-19 Response.

For North Carolinians eligible to get vaccinated now, Dr. Cohen recommends checking with local health department and hospitals to determine when appointments are being offered and if you can be added to a waiting list.

“Again, you don’t have the be confined to your county. Counties can, should and must be serving all jurisdiction,” stressed Sec. Cohen.

For a list of vaccine providers by county, visit YourSpotYourShot.nc.gov.

On Thursday the NC Department of Transportation also announced $2.5 million in Coronavirus Relief Funding would be allocated to local transit agencies across the state to help pay for rides for individuals who need transportation assistance to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Find your local transit agency online.

North Carolina recorded 7,187 new COVID cases on Thursday with 3,666 people hospitalized. While that’s the lowest hospitalization number since the first week in January, the coronavirus has claimed 139 lives in our state in the last 24 hours.

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