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North Carolina editorial roundup

August 2, 2017

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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July 30

The Daily Reflector of Greenville on an agreement to integrate East Carolina University physicians and Vidant Medical Group:

An agreement struck to integrate ECU Physicians and Vidant Medical Group no doubt will raise questions and concerns about the transfer of public interests to a private entity, the closed manner in which the deal was developed and the future of thousands of employees. However, we believe that the leaders who are moving forward with this initiative are doing so out of necessity and a sincere desire to benefit eastern North Carolina.

Officials with Vidant Health and East Carolina University signed the 100-page document to unify 80 Vidant and 25 ECU medical practices and combine thousands of employees under a single new company. The new nonprofit organization, currently called VECU Medical Group, will be governed by the leadership of both East Carolina and Vidant. ECU Physicians will transfer all of its state-owned property and assets to the new company, and Vidant will pay ECU an initial $35 million followed by annual payments of $14.25 million into an endowment to be directed by the chancellor.

The agreement does not alter the employment status and compensation of current Vidant employees, officials said, and the new corporation will offer employment to all the state workers employed by ECU Physicians — about 400 doctors and 700 other caregivers and support staff. Those who are not vested in the state retirement system may choose to move immediately. Others, according to the agreement, will have the option to be assigned to the VECU group while remaining under ECU employment in order to reach state retirement and benefit milestones — essentially they can be grandfathered.

East Carolina Chancellor Cecil Staton and Vidant Health Chief Executive Michael Waldrum in an interview with The Daily Reflector last week said they would treat all of the employees with fairness and respect during the transition, which could take up to 18 months. They must take that approach because their endeavor requires a dedicated and enthusiastic workforce for it to be successful, they said. To treat their workforce poorly would be self-defeating. That is sound logic and good business sense.

What the two entities are doing, however, is about more than business. It is about continuing the kind of research that has provided the area world class treatment of cardiovascular illness, cancer and even obesity. It is about training top notch doctors, nurses and therapists for the future at a cost among the lowest anywhere. And it is about providing health care to tens of thousands of east Carolinians, including those among us who are least able to afford its high cost.

Vidant and ECU for decades have been the health care of last resort for the thousands of poor in the region who have no place else to turn. That in part is what has necessitated the merger. People who can’t pay are numerous, the providers have received less in the way of reimbursement from public and private insurers, and support from state and federal government doesn’t fill gaps. ECU in particular has struggled to stay in the black.

Together, the leaders of ECU and Vidant say they can face such challenges more successfully and deliver care in the most cost efficient manner. That does not necessarily mean doing more with less, the leaders said, but service at a greater value will allow them to deliver even better service to more people, which may in turn provide jobs for even more service providers.

Their progress at keeping their promises certainly should be scrutinized, but the history of how well these institutions have buoyed the region should earn them some measure of trust and confidence that they will deliver.

Online: http://www.reflector.com/

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July 25

The Fayetteville Observer on Gov. Roy Cooper announcing tough enforcement actions to stop the flow of a possible carcinogen into the Cape Fear River:

This is a good place to start rebuilding North Carolina’s efforts to protect its precious natural resources — and the lives and health of its residents.

It’s also a good place to show that we know the difference between being business-friendly and being irresponsibly hands-off.

The latter condition became too common in state government in recent years. We hope Gov. Roy Cooper brought it to a tire-screeching halt this week as he announced tough enforcement actions to stop the flow of a possible carcinogen into the Cape Fear River.

The governor went to Wilmington Monday to announce a series of measures to stop the flow of a chemical called GenX from the Chemours plant on the Cumberland-Bladen County line into the Cape Fear River. High levels of the chemical — used in the manufacture of Teflon products, among other things — were found downstream, including in the water supply of Wilmington and other communities on the Cape Fear.

While the GenX was being discharged from the Chemours plant, researchers found several other related compounds in the river as well. Some of them are so new that no research has been done on their health effects, but given that they are related chemically to compounds that are likely to cause cancer, it’s prudent to keep them out of public water supplies.

On Monday, Cooper announced several significant developments in reaction to the chemical discharge. That begins with the State Bureau of Investigation’s Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit looking into the discharge and determining if a criminal investigation is in order. The state will also work with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess the long-term health effects of GenX. It appears that GenX has been discharged into the river for more than 35 years.

Cooper says the state Department of Environmental Quality will deny Chemours’ request for a permit to discharge any amount of GenX into the river and he has already spoken with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about completing a health assessment and setting regulatory standards for GenX. DEQ will also begin requiring companies to disclose more information about the unregulated chemicals like GenX that they release into the environment.

Chemours voluntarily stopped discharging GenX into the river last month and since then, monitoring shows levels of the chemical in river water have dropped significantly. Cooper is also filing an emergency appropriations request for the General Assembly to consider when it returns to session next month. The plan is to restore earlier budget cuts in the DEQ, hire additional scientists and increase water testing. The governor also wants to create a water health safety unit in the Department of Health and Human Services.

We’re especially pleased to see that Cooper and his cabinet recognize that this isn’t just a single problem limited to discharge from one chemical plant on one of the state’s rivers. As state regulators well know, the Cape Fear alone has other pollution problems, including the long-term release of the cancer-causing chemical 1,4-dioxane from somewhere in the Triad. That carcinogen is entering the water supply of every community that draws its water from the Cape Fear and Haw basins, from Greensboro down to Wilmington.

“I think this is something that is not just a Cape Fear issue,” Cooper said Monday. “This is a statewide issue and we must address it.”

We hope lawmakers, whose leaders are often at odds with Cooper, will see this as a nonpartisan issue, and a no-brainer. Keeping our water clean and safe is as basic a government function as there is. Keeping cancer-causing compounds out of our water supply has to be a core mission for our regulators and our public-health initiatives. Anything less is dangerously irresponsible.

Online: http://www.fayobserver.com/

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July 20

News & Record of Greensboro on state budget cuts affecting the justice system:

In late 2015, High Point and Elon universities conducted important polling for a commission established by N.C. Chief Justice Mark Martin. The findings made a sad statement.

Among them: Eighty percent of respondents believed that the wealthy receive better treatment in court than do average people; 73 percent thought ordinary citizens can’t afford to bring a case to court; and 76 percent believed a person without a lawyer was less likely to get a fair deal.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just public perception. Too often, it’s reality. And rather than getting better, the problem is likely to worsen. The goal of equal justice for all is fading further out of reach for more North Carolinians.

The new state budget inexplicably cut $1.7 million in legal aid funding derived, not from taxes, but from a $1.50 surcharge on some court fees. The reduction will limit the work that nonprofit legal aid agencies can do on behalf of low-income residents.

Legal aid lawyers represent low-income clients in civil cases such as evictions, fair-housing claims, child custody, predatory lending, government benefits and consumer protection. Problems that someone with means could solve easily by hiring an attorney can overwhelm someone who has to fend for himself against a well-represented corporation or government agency. A poor person is likely to lose if he’s taken to court by someone who has a lawyer, or if he tries to stand up for his rights against a more powerful adversary. Legal aid helps level the playing field, at least until its resources are exhausted. Now that will happen sooner.

As a July 9 report by the News & Record’s Taft Wireback indicates, it’s not even clear how this happened or why. A provision was placed in the budget to strip the funding and never debated. No one owns up to it. Someone — obviously someone with influence — opposes equal access to justice in our courts and found anonymous accomplices in the legislature who were willing to weaken legal assistance.

In criminal cases, defendants have a constitutional right to the assistance of counsel, even if they can’t afford to hire a lawyer themselves. Yet public defender’s offices carry heavy caseloads, and private attorneys who agree to represent indigent clients are grossly underpaid for their work. A criminal defendant who can pay for a team of lawyers has a better chance of a favorable outcome in court, all other circumstances being equal.

At the same time, the legislature continues to make the courts more political and subject to influence by big-money special interests. Judicial elections at all levels will be partisan; public funding for campaigns has been eliminated; contribution limits have been raised. It’s no holds barred.

The impression given is that our legislators want to see more judges who owe their elections to fat-cat contributors presiding over courts where only the rich are guaranteed a full measure of justice. While that’s surely an overstatement, and most judges and court personnel are committed to the concept of equal justice, people with little money are at a disadvantage when it comes to choosing judges, paying for representation and securing fair outcomes.

Martin’s Commission on the Administration of Law & Justice, which delivered its report to the legislature this year, recommended increased legal aid funding.

“Resources are at the heart of access to justice,” the report said, noting that the benefits of legal aid include “stopping domestic abuse, preventing unnecessary homelessness, and blocking illegal and predatory consumer practices.”

Unfortunately, “access to justice” is having a heart attack in North Carolina.

Online: http://www.greensboro.com/

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