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.

COVID-19, News

UNC System to reimburse students for unused dining, housing due to pandemic

The UNC System will reimburse students for unused housing and dining services, after universities shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interim UNC System President Bill Roper announced the move Monday, when the UNC Board of Governors held a special session via teleconference.

“It is our commitment to all UNC System students and parents to get this done as quickly as possible,” Roper said. “It is also our obligation to get this done right. We hope to be able to announce specifics for processing and issuing refunds in the upcoming weeks.”

The reimbursements will be prorated, according to UNC System officials, refunding students for unused dining and time when campus housing was unavailable.

The UNC System has about 80,000 students living on the campuses of its 17 schools. The university stepped up efforts to get students out of the dorms earlier this month, requiring students who have no other housing or dining options to get approval from the school to stay. The move reduced the overall on-campus population by 90%, making proper social distancing procedures  easier.

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

Education

Guilford County Schools to give cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other essential hourly workers temporary pay increases

In response the COVID-19 crisis, Guilford County Schools will increase hourly pay for cafeteria workers, bus drivers and other essential hourly workers beginning Wednesday.

Although North Carolina’s public schools have been closed since March 13, cafeteria workers and bus drivers across the state have played critical roles in the delivery of meals to needy students and their families.

The pay increase — time and a half for hours worked — applies to hourly employees who have been deemed mandatory by supervisors and are required to report to work either to provide childcare for hospital workers or to prepare and deliver student meals.

“Without our dedicated school nutrition and transportation staff who are preparing and distributing meals, Guilford County would be facing the potential of massive child hunger,” GCS Superintendent Sharon Contreras said in a statement. “Additionally, without the commitment of our after-school staff, teacher assistants and custodial support, some hospital workers would not have childcare and would be unable to report for duty.”

The pay increase is valid April 1-30, but may be extended, depending on the pandemic’s impact in Guilford County. The state’s schools will not reopen before May 18.

For the 2019-2020 school year, more than 65% of GCS students qualified for free- or reduced-price meals.

Last Tuesday, GCS served slightly fewer than 1,000 meals. Eight days later, that number jumped to more than 29,000 emergency meals per day. The district has provided more than 157,000 meals to children since Gov. Roy Cooper announced schools were closing, effective March 16.

Contreras plans to ask the General Assembly and Gov. Cooper to increase the pay of public-school employees providing essential services during the coronavirus pandemic.

She and the GCS school board will meet virtually Tuesday with members of the local NCGA delegation to discuss the pay increase.

“We respectfully ask the General Assembly to act swiftly to increase the pay of these critical hourly employees,” Contreras said. “In the meantime, however, GCS will take action immediately to prevent child hunger and the lack of childcare for frontline healthcare workers from making the pandemic even worse.”

GCS officials also announced plans to reduce the number of non-mandatory personnel working on-site this week to help slow the spread of the virus.

The State Board of Education adopted new rules Friday to allow non-mandatory employees and those who report for reduced hours, who are unable to work from home, to take paid State Emergency Leave for the balance of the hours they were not assigned on-site or remote duties.

Commentary, COVID-19, NC Budget and Tax Center

Three reasons why federal aid to state, local governments is not enough

Last week, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, which was immediately signed by the President.

While the bill has many good provisions, it misses the mark in many ways, like prioritizing tax breaks for big companies over federal aid to state and local governments.

Of the approximately $4 billion North Carolina is expected to receive, the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities estimates that $3.5 billion will go to the state and only about $481 million to local governments. This is largely a result of the allocation formula, which only provides allocation to local governments if the population is above 500,000 residents.

State and local governments are on the front lines of trying to keep communities healthy and to protect people from losing income and access to basic needs. Prior to the passage of the CARES Act, the NC League of Municipalities wrote letters to state leaders calling for additional resources to make up for declining revenue and meet the growing need for public safety personnel and broadband access. In a letter to Congress, the National League of Cities outlined four recommended improvements the CARES Act: enact a stabilization fund for cities and states, make local governments eligible for tax credit to offset costs of paid leave, stabilize the municipal bond market, and repeal state and local and property tax deduction caps.

Although the state and local aid in the CARES Act is a meaningful and important first step, it is likely to be insufficient to support North Carolina’s increased expenditures from combating COVID-19, as well as the potential loss in revenue from an economic downturn. Read more