RALEIGH — Highlights from Council of State news in April include the state’s insurance commissioner’s concern about a House bill, the state treasurer urging passage of a bill addressing medical debt, approval of funding for Asheville’s airport upgrade, and the state’s attorney general joining the abortion pill legal fight.
The North Carolina Council of State (COS) is an administrative body of 10 elected officials who are heads of their departments. Council members include the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor, treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance and commissioner of labor.
Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey raised concern at a press conference this month about House Bill 346, the Reorganization & Economic Development Act. Under that act, Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) would be allowed to create a holding company to which it could transfer all or some of the current $4.6 billion in policyholder reserve funds instead of reducing rates or returning excess funds to policyholders.
Causey said BCBS, which is currently regulated by his agency, would have less oversight and essentially become deregulated and rates might be raised. He also said his agency should retain jurisdiction over BCBS.
“Blue Cross was created and organized as a nonprofit corporation, and for decades they enjoyed a lot of tax advantage in this state that other insurance companies didn’t have,” Causey said during the press event. “It was created to offer health insurance to North Carolina citizens. Blue Cross North Carolina’s nonprofit status and how the proposed reorganization impact is what’s at the heart of my concern.”
Causey also visited three minor league baseball stadiums across the state to bring greater public attention to the dangers of driving while distracted.
Additionally, Causey announced an Oct. 16 hearing date for the North Carolina Rate Bureau’s proposed 28.4% auto insurance rate increase. The hearing will begin at 10 a.m. in the Jim Long Hearing Room in the Albemarle Building, 325 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh.
“We are not in agreement with the Rate Bureau’s proposed increases filed on Feb. 1. The next step, according to statute, is to set a hearing date,” Causey said in a statement.
The Office of State Auditor published its annual statewide audit which highlighted several state agencies failing to adequately monitor federal funds, including COVID-19 relief money.
The auditor’s office also published an investigative audit of the Hamilton District Volunteer Fire-EMS Department in Martin County showing a possible violation of federal tax laws. Among the audit’s findings was an unreported $52,670 in compensation paid to individuals for services performed from 2017 to 2021 by Hamilton Fire-EMS.
Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson held a meeting of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Advisory Council on May 2 at agency offices on Lake Boone Trail in Raleigh.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell called on lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 321, Medical Debt De-Weaponization Act. The bill would help families with mounting medical debt collections by requiring large health care facilities to provide patients with a financial assistance policy and would prevent the use of excessive collection methods. The bill also would require health care providers to publish price information on their websites and block the charging of facility fees for certain identified procedures. Health care facilities and medical debt collectors violating those provisions could be sued by a consumer.
“Families can’t see themselves past their poverty because of medical debt,” Folwell said in a statement. “That’s not a political issue. That’s a moral issue. Lawmakers have the chance to change the lives of thousands of North Carolinians. With inflation at 40-year highs and rising health care costs, we can’t afford to wait for reform.”
Folwell’s office also issued a statement that the Local Government Commission (LGC) approved the Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority’s request for $175 million in transportation revenue bonds to be used for the airport’s expansion and modernization projects.
At the N.C. Department of Justice, Attorney General Josh Stein joined other Democratic attorneys general in challenging a federal judge’s decision to block the abortion drug mifepristone. A coalition of 24 attorneys general had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to stop U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk’s order while appeals are made.
Stein also issued a statement regarding a hefty $226,000 settlement in the Medicare fraud case involving alleged fraudulent submissions by MedCare Clinic & Pharmacy, LLC, located in Indian Trail. Funds from this settlement will go back to Medicare and the North Carolina Medicaid program.
In education, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) touted Chapel-Hill Carrboro City Schools English teacher Kimberly Jones being selected as the 2023 Burroughs-Wellcome Fund Teacher of the Year at a luncheon held at The Umstead Hotel in Cary on April 14. Jones was also named teacher for her school and district and replaces the 2022 Teacher of the Year, Leah Carper, an English teacher at Northern Guilford High School.
NCDPI also released a promising report on midyear testing that showed literacy gains for K-3 students. According to an NCDPI press release, the percentage of K-3 students performing at or above the benchmark score of the 2022-23 school year was higher than assessment results from the beginning of the school year.
The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Standards Division has collected fines from 37 stores in 22 counties because of excessive price-scanner errors. Outlets found to have overcharged included Family Dollar, Dollar General, Circle K, Minuteman Food Mart and Target.
Civil penalty fines for the first quarter of 2023 now stand at $284,635. The largest fine levied was at a Family Dollar located at 206 Ocean Highway in Hertford, which paid $32,685 in penalties, according to the press release from the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
“Our Standards Division closely watches stores to ensure that consumers are protected,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “This is an important function to make sure North Carolinians are being charged the prices they see on shelves. While our work will continue, it is important for consumers to check their receipts regularly and notify store managers if they see a discrepancy.”
In agriculture other news, the state’s Board of Agriculture met on April 17 and heard from the North Carolina Apple Growers Association, received industry updates and honored former board member Dan Finch.