News

Lawmakers, citizens speak out against Affordable Care Act lawsuit

Lawmakers joined patient advocates and people sharing personal health care stories Wednesday to speak out against the the Trump administration lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

The event, held outside Sen. Thom Tillis’ office in downtown Raleigh, was part of Protect Our Care’s nationwide bus tour, which seeks to highlight what the group says is the danger to more than 100 million Americans protected by the ACA.

“If the Trump administration and the coalition of Republican-led states backing this suit have their way, the courts will do what President Trump and the U.S. Senate have tried and failed to do — overturn the Affordable Care Act,” said Felicia Burnett, Healthcare Director for MomsRising.

“This will threaten protections for 130 million people living with pre-existing conditions,” Burnett said. “People like me, many of you and moms all across this country.”

Burnett shared the story of her son Ethan, who was born with a vascular tumor that required chemotherapy and an external port placed in his heart that needed constant monitoring to avoid infection. Burnett had to leave her job and forego her health insurance to care for him.

“I am one of countless parents in North Carolina who can say that our Medicaid program literally save my child’s life,” said Burnett.

But once Ethan got better, Burnett found it difficult to find insurance on the individual marketplace because she had a pre-existing condition and a gap in coverage.

The Affordable Care Act changed all that, she said. Insurance companies could no longer refuse to offer coverage to her family because of she and Ethan’s pre-existing conditions.

But that guarantee — that Americans won’t find themselves denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition — isn’t the Affordable Care Act’s only virtue, Burnett said. It also prevents insurers from charging women more than men for coverage, prevents caps that deny coverage when patients who have paid into their plan need it most and allows young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance coverage until age 26.

“If the Trump lawsuit succeeds, all that goes away,” Burnett said. “More than 20 million Americans — including a half a million North Carolinians — will lose their health insurance.”

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Education, News, public health

Editorial: Time to roll up our sleeves and strengthen the laws that require vaccinations for school children

With a new school year right around the corner, the editorial board of the Greensboro News & Record reminds us of the need to listen to our medical professionals when it comes to vaccinating our children.

The numbers won’t be crunched for a few months, but officials fear that the disturbing trend of the last few years will continue. The percentage of children who have not been vaccinated is rising, despite the efforts of public health and school officials and despite reams of evidence from medical professionals showing that vaccinations are safe and effective.

Exemptions to the law are allowed for two reasons: medical and religious. Medical exemptions require documentation that the child has an allergy or some other condition that makes vaccination unsafe. Only about 1 in 1,000 children have a medical exemption.

The alarming increase is in the exemptions for religious reasons. All parents need to do to obtain a religious exemption is write a statement of their religious objections.

Last year, about 1 out of 300 North Carolina students were granted such exemptions.

We’ve already seen what can happen. Buncombe County, with the highest rate of parents requesting religious exemptions, had the largest outbreak of chickenpox in North Carolina since that vaccine became available. Buncombe County also had an outbreak of pertussis, called whooping cough in the bad old days when it was sometimes fatal to infants.

Officials consider the vaccines that prevent many childhood diseases to be one of the greatest public health success stories of recent decades. These diseases are not to be taken lightly.

Measles used to kill children and leave others blind or with neurological problems. Chickenpox can necessitate amputations, cause shingles later in life, and even kill infants and people with weakened immune systems. The list goes on.

Why would parents deliberately not take advantage of vaccines to prevent these diseases? Sincere religious beliefs probably figure in a few cases, but it’s likely that junk science, conspiracy theories and social media play a much bigger role.

Many of the so-called anti-vaxxers have bought in to the misinformation campaign started by the thoroughly discredited research of Andrew Wakefield, a former British physician who in 1998 published a “study” in The Lancet, a medical journal, claiming a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella — often simply called MMR — and autism. The Lancet later retracted the “study” as false, and Wakefield lost his medical license. But the myths keep circulating, despite extensive new research showing there is no link, and that the MMR vaccination saves lives.

Some parents selfishly decide not to have their children vaccinated, believing that since most others are vaccinated, their children will be safe. That’s a false assumption, as the outbreaks in Asheville prove.

The very success of vaccinations makes some parents think they aren’t necessary. Today’s parents grew up without experiencing those diseases or having known friends who died or were permanently damaged by them. They don’t see the diseases as a real threat, despite what public health officials try to tell us.

But skipped vaccinations endanger not just their own children but also others — infants, pregnant women and those who legitimately can’t take vaccines.

State officials should strengthen the sensible laws that require vaccinations for children to attend any school, whether public, charter or private.

Today’s children face enough dangers; why add an easily preventable disease to the list?

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immigration, News

BREAKING NEWS: Governor Cooper vetoes controversial HB370 ICE detainer bill

Gov. Roy Cooper wasted little time in vetoing House Bill 370, “An Act to Require Compliance with Immigration Detainers and Administrative Warrants.”

The House gave the measure final approval Tuesday on a 62-53 vote, with proponents saying the bill was necessary to aid law enforcement in protecting public safety.

But more than 100 national and state organizations joined together to call the bill dangerous, noting that it would tear apart families and strip local law enforcement of their ability to make decisions in the best interest of the public.

Governor Cooper released the following statement in issuing Wednesday’s veto:

“This legislation is simply about scoring partisan political points and using fear to divide North Carolina. As the former top law enforcement officer of our state, I know that current law allows the state to jail and prosecute dangerous criminals regardless of immigration status.

This bill, in addition to being unconstitutional, weakens law enforcement in North Carolina by mandating sheriffs to do the job of federal agents, using local resources that could hurt their ability to protect their counties. Finally, to elevate their partisan political pandering, the legislature has made a sheriff’s violation of this new immigration duty as the only specifically named duty violation that can result in a sheriff’s removal from office.”

Commentary, News

News report: Bipartisan “red flag” gun violence protection law working well in Florida

A National Public Radio news story broadcast this morning provides more compelling evidence that Florida’s so-called “red flag” law is working well to place roadblocks in the path of individuals prone to commit murder and/or suicide. The story reports that the bipartisan bill, which was passed in the aftermath of the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, has resulted in more than 2,500 orders to temporarily remove weapons from the possession of potentially dangerous individuals. Judges have been issuing them at the rate of nearly five per day. This is from “Florida Could Serve As Example For Lawmakers Considering Red Flag Laws”:

Bob Gualtieri, the sheriff in Pinellas County, Fla., which has issued more than 350 risk protection orders, believes the red flag law is something Florida has needed for a long time. Before, even if someone was found to be mentally ill, he says police couldn’t take their guns. This law changes, and gives police a tool for dealing with people “that have said things, that have done things, exhibited behaviors that rise to the level of concern.”

Once the order is in place, Gualtieri says, “They can’t run out and buy guns, acquire guns. Because you’re prohibited from possessing, from owning or purchasing under a risk protection order. So, it’s a big deal.”

While the law is clearly not perfect — judges express concerns, for instance, about the challenge of issuing orders based on predictions of possible human behavior — the law gets good reviews in many places. what’s more, it became law without active opposition from the NRA.

The largest number of risk protection orders, more than 380, have been issued in Polk County, an area with no major cities and a population of some 700,000. Perhaps surprisingly, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is an outspoken supporter of gun rights.

“Yeah I’m a huge second amendment person,” Judd said. “I certainly believe those that are not mentally ill and have not had a felony conviction have the right to possess firearms.”

The NRA hasn’t actively opposed the red flag law here. Judd, a card-carrying member says the law requires a person to surrender their firearms to police or to a family member who agrees to keep them in a secure location. But it’s only temporary. For Judd, that’s an important distinction.

“The risk protection order does not allow the government to seize your firearms,” he said. “It’s more or less a cooling off period.”

While such a law is far from all that is needed, the experience in Florida ought to send a strong message to Republican legislative leaders in North Carolina that they can and should stop their blockade of a similar proposal by Durham state Rep. Marcia Morey.

Environment, Legislature

In the House, a major amendment to controversial Duke Energy rate-making bill hands the hot potato back to the Senate

Rep. Larry Strickland: “Not a lot of people want this bill outside of Duke Energy.”

A key provision in Senate Bill 559 was upended in the House Tuesday afternoon, which made the measure more palatable to opponents but added uncertainty to it future.

Colloquially known as the Duke Energy rate-making bill, it contained a controversial section that allowed the utilities commission to approve multi-year rate plans. Utilities could then avoid requesting rate hikes more often. While bill proponents in the legislature said it would add certainty to rate-making, there’s no guarantee that rates would decrease. If they increased, customers could be locked into higher bills for several years.

The amendment now require the Utilities Commission to study multi-year rate making and other methods. “Not a lot of people want this bill outside of Duke Energy,” said Rep. Larry Strickland, a Republican representing Harnett and Johnston counties. “We need a lot more discussion. This impacts small businesses, industry and families.”

The study would be due no later than March 1, 2020.

The amendment passed 63-51, which teed up the near-unanimous approval of the bill. After a 112-2 vote, the measure now returns to the Senate.

Section 1 of the bill allows Duke Energy to ask the Utilities Commission for permission to sell bonds to recover costs associated with storm damage. It has met no opposition. But with Section 2, and now the amendment, the fate of the bill in the Senate is uncertain. During committee hearings and on the Senate floor earlier in the session, several Democratic senators, including Mike Woodard of Durham County, suggested peeling off the controversial section into a study bill. Sen. Ralph Hise, a bill co-sponsor, quickly quashed the proposal.

The bill has been tweaked several times to attempt to assuage concerns from industry and consumer advocates that Duke could use alternative rate-making to “milk profits from customers,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, who supports the measure.

The original bill contained “earnings bands.”  The banding portion of a multi-rate plan would allow the Utilities Commission to establish a return on investment — a profit — for the utility that acts as a midpoint; from there, the commission also would set a low- and high-end range — a band — for profitability. This provision would require Duke Energy to refund to customers any profits above 1.25 percent on its rate of return.

Bill sponsors changed the bill so that profits from the middle and top of earnings bands were directed to projects like affordable housing.

Thirty-five states have enacted alternative rate-making mechanisms, but they differ in their approach and success. “Let’s not make mistake Virginia made,” Strickland said, “which resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in overcharges.”

Lewis opposed the amendment. “Why study something that merely gives the Utilities Commission the option. It’s redundant to study whether they would like to have the option. The amendment is damaging to the bill.”

A study is beyond the scope of the Utilities Commission, said Rep. Dean Arp, a Union County Republican. “This is a confusion of checks and balances. Their role is not to enact a study but to carry out policy.”

Bill proponents often touted that the measure had bipartisan support because it Democrat Dan Blue of Wake County is a co-sponsor. However, there also has been bipartisan pushback.

Rep. John Szoka, a Republican from Cumberland County, said he could not support the multi-year rate-making portion of the bill. “It’s better than when it was introduced but it still has flaws.”

Szoka said he agreed the changing energy industry needs new methods for rate-making. Because of energy efficiency, the demand for electricity has decreased. “Rewarding a utility for building more [plants] is no longer viable,” Szoka said. I understand where impetus for Section 2 is coming from. But it doesn’t solve the problem. It’s utility-centered, not ratepayer-centered. The best alternative is a study.”

Environmental groups were pleased with Strickland’s amendment. Josh McClenney, North Carolina field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, issued a statement:

“This is how public policy should be made, with a thorough and open vetting by the public and by experts to understand the full impact on North Carolina families and businesses, not through Duke Energy writing its own bills and making deals with legislators behind closed doors. Regardless of what happens when the bill gets to the Senate, multi-year rate hikes should not be passed outside of broader utility regulatory reform.”

Molly Diggins, director of the NC Chapter of the Sierra Club urged the Senate to agree with the changes. “There are many utility rate-making tools that could benefit the environment and customers that were not included in this bill because it was crafted by and for the utility, not the public.”