Jul 232014


By Michael Abramowitz

July 23, 2014

Officials at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine and their health care delivery partners at Vidant Medical Center are staying connected to their legislative delegation this week as efforts continue to close the gaps in the state’s budget talks.

Through ECU physician services and the school’s relationship with Vidant, Medicaid reimbursement and funding for the medical school remain the central issues that affect the sustainability of health care in the east, university officials and Vidant executives said.

Members of the ECU Board of Trustees are continuing efforts to reinstate the medical school’s setoff debt collection (SODCA) capabilities through state tax refunds, removed by the Legislature in 2013. They also are seeking changes to state Medicaid upper payment limits (UPL) that allow the school to access matching federal Medicaid funds.

Those losses led to a combined $8.5 million revenue shortfall for ECU’s health care services, adding to the loss of $2 million from late Medicaid payments and another $5 million in other losses, according to a report to the trustees from Rick Niswander, vice chancellor for administration and finance.

“The situation continues to change constantly,” ECU communications director Mary Schulken said on Tuesday. “We have no firm information on the status of SODCA or UPLs, but we continue to work hard for a reasonable budget outcome on both of those issues.”

Vidant CEO Dr. David Herman said there seems to be an ideological divide between the position shared by Gov. Pat McCrory and the state House and that of the state Senate. This has prevented a workable solution, he said.

“The House is run from the bottom up, while the Senate is run from the leadership down,” Herman said. “When the House built its budget, it had committee meetings and sub-committee meetings, gathering a lot of input from diverse parties. The Senate never had any sub-committee meetings before it developed its budget. They haven’t sat down with the people responsible for delivering care and providing medical education and tried to come up with implementable solutions. ”

The SODCA and UPL budget provisions do nothing to help balance the state budget or create jobs in North Carolina, Herman said.

“SODCA is money that’s owed by people who have received services at the Brody School, which it, in distinction from more than 100 other state agencies, cannot collect,” Herman said. “The senators say that Brody physicians would be provided an uneven playing field versus other medical providers across the state, but I don’t see Brody medical providers being in competition with any other providers across the state.”

Clarifying the competitive picture among his Senate colleagues has been a difficult task, Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, admitted on Tuesday.

“All of the eastern delegation is solidly behind SODCA and the UPL efforts,” Pate said. “Our numbers are more in line with what the Brody School and Vidant have to have. It’s been worrisome to us ever since the information came out three months ago. I think we’re convincing our brethren across the state that it’s got to be done.”

A sticking point, Pate said, is the difficulty that legislators have had getting accurate fiscal information from the state’s Health and Human Services Department because of problems with its NC TRACKS and NC FAST computer systems.

“We’re finally beginning to get more accurate data, due to their increased diligence, particularly from NC TRACKS,” Pate said. “FAST is … not so fast.”

With the short legislative session quickly drawing to an end, Pate said he believes there is impetus to resolve differences and make what he said are needed changes.

“We’ve been drawing closer to a solution, but, like moths drawn to a flame, we’re trying not to get burned,” Pate said. “We’re getting to a place now, though, where it’s time to get things accomplished. There’s a lot of incentive for us to reach an agreement, and I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get there within the next few days.”

Jul 232014


By Ginger Livingston

July 23, 2014

An East Carolina University professor who wrote the standards for lightning safety is urging people to take common-sense steps to avoid injury or death from lightning.

Katie Walsh Flanagan, a professor and director of athletics training education, led the team that 10 years ago wrote the first standards for lightning safety for athletics and recreation. She also led the group that updated the standards in a 2013 position statement for the National Athletics Trainers’ Association and wrote the National Collegiate Athletics Association’s lightning safety standards. High school athletics programs across the country also follow the standards she has written.

The rules are equally applicable to youth athletics programs and groups pursuing outdoor activities such as the Boy Scouts.

“We are in eastern North Carolina in the summer, and every day there is a chance of storms,” Flanagan said. “July is the consistent, number one month for people dying from lightning strikes.”

Fourteen people in the United States have been killed by lightning strikes since May, Flanagan said.

North Carolina ranks in the top six for lightning strikes, she said.

Flanagan’s research has examined where lightning will most likely occur and what weather conditions are favorable for strikes, how many people have been killed or injured by lightning, what they were doing when struck and what are the best methods for preventing injury or death from lightning strikes.

Most lightning strikes happen in mountainous area, along the Eastern Seaboard and the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, Flanagan said. There is a lightning season from May to September that occurs from 4-8 p.m. on the Eastern Seaboard. It’s during that time period that most deaths and injuries occur, she said.

“Why is that? What are most of us on the Eastern Seaboard doing from 4 and 8? We are outside,” she said.

Preventing death or injury is simple enough.

“You have to be inside a substantial building, a place where people live or work,” she said. A screened porch or an open-air shelter like a dugout is not adequate, she said.

“The current thought for a lot of people is, if it is not raining, you are safe,” Flanagan said. “I saw a photograph in The Daily Reflector last year where a school baseball game was called off but the people were just standing under a sheltered walkway. They weren’t getting wet, but they could have still been struck.”

If a building isn’t available, a car, van, bus or any enclosed vehicle is also safe, she said.

Flanagan became somewhat famous, or some may say infamous, in 2012 when her order to evacuate Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium caused an almost 90-minute delay in ECU’s game against the University of Texas-El Paso. She ordered the evacuation when radar showed a thunderstorm eight miles from the stadium. Within 20 minutes, almost 50,000 had left the stadium.

“It’s not just knowing where there is a safe place to go but also knowing when is the time to vacate the field,” she said.

Organizations should identify lightning-safe locations and calculate how long it would take people to reach the location, factoring the additional time it takes to move groups of people, she said.

Flanagan began her work on lightning safety policies shortly after arriving at ECU in 1995.

She was searching for a research topic and wanted to explore the area of policy setting.

“In my office I have a poster of lightning striking Half Dome (mountain) in Yosemite, and I got an idea,” Flanagan said.

She surveyed colleges and universities to see what their policies were concerning lightning events during outdoor athletic, events.

“Nobody had one. They said, ‘Well, we will leave,’” she said.

Flanagan started working with doctors who studied lightning injuries and meteorologists who studied the conditions favorable for lightning. Patterns started emerging.

“The fatalities we’ve tracked have never been people dashing to their car,” she said. “They are the people who dashed outside to lock their car or who went back to get their mitt left on the field or the person who waited too late to get to safety.

“Most of them were already in a safe place and chose to go back outside too soon.”

Flanagan recommends people remaining inside until 30 minutes after the last strike of lightning is seen and the last sound of thunder is heard.

Flanagan and the researchers she’s worked with determined 42 reported lightning deaths occurred in the United States last year. At least 10 times as many people were injured by lightning strikes. It’s likely the death rate is higher because some lightning deaths may appear to be a heart attack or another cause, she said.

There is no national database for recording lightning deaths, Flanagan said.

There isn’t a weather warning system for lightning, but if individuals monitor local weather reports and see a storm coming, they should know lightning is likely accompanying it, and it’s best to get inside, she said.

“Lightning can strike from 10 miles away; that’s farther away than you can hear thunder,” she said.

Jul 232014


July 22, 2014

The Affordable Care Act is again at the center of a nationwide debate after two federal court rulings on Tuesday. The differing decisions came down within hours of each other.

Hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians enrolled in insurance on the federal marketplace. Department of Justice Spokeswoman Emily Pierce says anyone receiving premium tax credits will continue to get them, at least for now.

One court ruling says financial aid can only be paid in states that have set up their own insurance exchanges. North Carolina is 1 of 36 without a state exchange.

Dr. Robert Thompson, who teaches Health Policy at East Carolina University, says the ruling is linked to a glitch in the Affordable Care Act’s language.

“Which hinges really on a typo in the law which says the subsidy only applies to states,” explains Dr. Thompson.

A second ruling, which came down shortly after the first, says people should receive subsidies regardless of a state-run or federal government exchange.

ECU senior Kristen Ziegler says she’s hoping her benefits will not be affected by the rulings.

“It’s been really hard for me and my family to afford the medication to help me deal with my asthma and keep it under control,” says Ziegler. “With this it’s easier to find doctors and pharmacies where I can get my medicine at.”

So far the Department of Justice says nothing has changed. For now Ziegler and nearly 358,000 participating in the North Carolina marketplace will continue to get tax credits.

Jul 232014


From News Releases

July 22, 2014

DURHAM — A trio of Duke women’s golfers will open action at the International European Ladies’ Amateur Championship Wednesday at the Estonian Golf & Country Club in Estonia. Duke junior Celine Boutier, along with incoming freshmen Lisa and Leona Maguire will play in the championship that will be held Wednesday through Saturday.

The reigning WGCA National Player of the Year, Boutier, of Montrouge, France, is coming off a tied third finish in the International European Ladies’ Amateur Championship last year with rounds of 73, 69, 72 and 68 for a total of 282. The Maguire twins are out of Cavan, Ireland and have very impressive international experience, which includes appearances in the Curtis Cup.


North Carolina: Rising junior Reilly Hovis will represent the Orleans Firebirds in the 2014 Cape Cod Baseball League All-Star Game, the league announced recently. Hovis will suit up for the East Division squad at Doran Park, home of the Bourne Braves, on Sunday.

A first-team All-ACC selection as a sophomore, Hovis has continued his standout 2014 season in the Cape.

Women’s soccer

Duke: Recent Duke University women’s soccer graduate Natasha Anasi has signed a deal with IBV of Iceland to play professional soccer.

Anasi has already reported to Iceland and scored a goal in a 4-2 loss to Breidablik in her professional debut. IBV currently ranks seventh in the Women’s Premier League in Iceland with 12 points.

Anasi, a product of Arlington, Texas, played in 97 contests and started her final 73 straight matches, while leading Duke to 39 shutouts on the defensive end.

Television deal

East Carolina: The university has agreed to terms with WNCT-TV (Ch. 9) on a three-year contract for the CBS affiliate to broadcast East Carolina athletics programs.

In addition to being the primary carrier of the Ruffin McNeill and Jeff Lebo Shows during the fall and winter months, WNCT’s 9 On Your Side team will deliver comprehensive exposure that includes in-depth features on ECU’s student-athletes from all sports throughout the year.

Jul 232014


July 23, 2014

Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive, political donor and UNC-Chapel Hill benefactor, has stepped down from the UNC system’s Board of Governors a year early.

Eshelman quietly left the board effective June 30. His term had been due to end June 30, 2015.

In a letter to Peter Hans, outgoing board chairman, Eshelman wrote that it was time for him to devote more time to other matters.

“Despite setbacks related to state funding, I believe that we have moved the ball forward under the leadership of you and President Ross,” he wrote in the letter to Hans.

Eshelman, along with Ross, spearheaded the UNC system’s strategic plan last year, which aimed to raise the state’s degree attainment rate, make campuses more efficient and push game-changing research. While the legislature took UNC up on its efficiency measures, it has not come through with funding for the plan.

Eshelman was outspoken about his frustration with the lack of funding. “We did identify the savings, and they took the savings, which we were supposed to be able to reinvest,” he said in The N&O last month.

That was unfortunate, he said at the time, adding that the university system is “the biggest economic engine we have in this state.”

Eshelman founded the contract research firm PPD in Wilmington and is the founding chairman of Furiex Pharmaceuticals. He has given more than $35 million to alma mater UNC-CH’s pharmacy school, which bears his name.

He is also a prolific political donor, giving mostly to conservative causes and Republican candidates in recent years. He was the major financial supporter of RightChange.com, a conservative political action committee that poured money into campaigns in 2010.

Jul 232014


By Jay Price

July 22, 2014

CHAPEL HILL — Researchers at the UNC School of Medicine played key roles in a giant international study that mapped some of the likely genetic underpinnings of schizophrenia, opening the door to new therapies for the debilitating psychiatric disorder.

The study, published online Tuesday in the journal Nature, identified 108 sites in the human genome that are associated with the risk of developing the disorder, which is among the most common – and serious – mental illnesses. Schizophrenia affects millions of people.

Doctors said the potential for new medicines is a particularly important implication, because drugs for schizophrenia have been aimed at the same lone site in the human genome for more than half a century.

“This gives researchers new targets to study which could help identify pharmaceutical or other interventions that could be used on these pathways or systems in the brain,” said Dr. John Gilmore, a professor of psychiatry at UNC who was not involved in the study.

Gilmore is deeply familiar with the disorder: He is director of UNC Center for Excellence in Community Mental Health, a program for people with schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses that treats more than 1,000 patients in the Triangle.

The study is the largest ever of the genetics of a psychiatric disorder. It involved more than 300 researchers in nearly 30 countries. They scrutinized genetic samples from nearly 37,000 people who had been diagnosed with the disorder and more than 113,000 healthy adults. Among the locations in human genes that they linked to schizophrenia were 83 that had never before been connected to the illness.

“Every single one of these is a clue, a clue to a gene or part of the genome that might have something to do with schizophrenia, and that’s really cool because that’s the kind of thing that gives us ideas about biology, that will give us ideas about what’s really going wrong,” said Dr. Patrick Sullivan of UNC-CH, a co-author of the research paper and co-founder of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, an international group of dozens of institutions and hundreds of researchers conducting broad-scale analyses of genetic data for psychiatric disease.

The study is the result of several years of work by the consortium’s Schizophrenia Working Group.

More than 1 in 100 adults are affected by schizophrenia, which is often characterized by hallucinations, paranoia and inability to engage in normal social behavior. Its societal costs are estimated at more than $60 billion annually in the United States alone.

‘The biggest step’

Even though schizophrenia is a huge public health issue worldwide, science has long struggled to understand its complicated causes.

“Until we can actually come to terms with what that is, it’s going to be very difficult for us to design effective treatments, to really understand what’s going on and how we can keep people healthy,” said Sullivan. “And this project is the biggest step in that direction, I would argue, that we have ever taken.”

Nearly a dozen scientists from UNC-CH participated in the study. Sullivan’s role included helping write and edit the paper. Other UNC researchers’ work on the study included helping design it and recruiting subjects.

‘Many different pathways’

The study clarified that schizophrenia is caused by both genetic factors and environmental factors such as contracting certain illnesses, substance abuse and psychological stress. Many people whose genes were scrutinized had large numbers of the genetic risk factors but didn’t have schizophrenia.

“We label it with one word, but you can probably get to it many different ways, so you might have a certain combination of risk genes and environmental risk factors that lead to schizophrenia,” Gilmore said. “Meanwhile, another person may have a completely different set of both, and also get schizophrenia, so there are probably many different pathways to developing it.”

That means that one day researchers may be able to identify subtypes of the disorder, which could then be targeted with more specific treatments, he said.

“Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to say, well, you’ve got these risk genes, or this pathway is involved in your individual form of schizophrenia, and so these particular drugs might be more effective for you,” Gilmore said.

Most of the sites on the genome that were found to be associated with the disorder were related to brain function. But a particularly intriguing finding was a number of connections between the disorder and genes in the immune system, which had long been hypothesized. That could help lead to better understanding about links to specific illnesses, perhaps in particular viruses that affect the brain, Sullivan said.

Jul 232014


Jul. 21, 2014

Kristin Zachary

HIGH POINT — There is more to higher education than several buildings dotting a sprawling, green college campus, and faculty and staff at Laurel University are working to prove that.

Housed in just one building that sits on 25 acres tucked off of Eastchester Drive, Laurel is small, but its size doesn’t tell the full story, according to spokeswoman Mary Kate Hancock.

Next month, the university will welcome its largest-ever freshmen class — 87 already are registered, but Hancock anticipates the class will swell to 125. The 11 apartments and two houses on campus will be filled to capacity.

But registration is ongoing, Hancock said, and the university is continuing to accept applications from interested students until the last possible second.

“Because we’re in a growing phase, we’re not turning people away,” Hancock said. Last year, the school enrolled just 25 new students.

The jump in numbers is due, in part, to the addition of four athletics programs — men’s and women’s soccer and lacrosse — and a shift in the students Laurel targets.

In previous years, the university has enrolled mostly adult students interested in night and online courses. Those students remain important, Hancock said, but the university has expanded its profile to also include the 18- to 24-year-old traditional college student seeking the four-year experience.

The majority of Laurel’s incoming class falls in that age range, leading to an increase in the number of students living on campus. Last year, 10 to 15 students lived at Laurel.

This fall, an estimated 55 students will live on campus, filling the 11 four-person apartments, each fully furnished and equipped with a full kitchen, living room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Four upperclassmen, males who are student leaders, will live in one house, and three freshmen women’s soccer players and a resident adviser will fill the second.

“We have a very strong sense of community,” Hancock said. “When there’s only 55 students on campus, you are almost forced to get to know people and to interact with people.

“You can’t not be seen, which I think at a big university it’s very easy for students to go to class, go back to their dorm room and nobody even notices they’re not there,” she said. “On a campus like this, your peers notice your presence and so will the faculty and staff.”

Growth in enrollment and on-campus population is among many changes for Laurel this fall, Hancock said, all a far cry from its start as a small Christian college 110 years ago.

“Everything is just kind of evolving all at once, and it’s all happening very quickly,” she said. “In just less than a year, we’ve gone from a profile of 25 freshmen students … to the anticipated 125. That’s huge.

“While other schools think 125 is small, it’s a big victory for us,” Hancock said. “And we hope that it’ll just continue to grow and we can continue to bring in students like we have.”

The university also has hired several new professors and created a number of scholarship programs to ease the financial burden for students.

She credits president Stephen Condon as being the proprietor of the changes, motivating and propelling the university forward.

“Dr. Condon was brought in last fall, and he just has incredible experience with growing schools that are a lot like we are — that small Christian school that really has the desire to build Christian leaders that will impact the world that we live in and change the world we live in,” she said.

Some programs in the university’s three schools — ministry, management and a certificate education program — will see slight changes to prepare the curriculum to stand up to what is required for accreditation through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

For example, the School of Management’s curriculum now will be modeled after that of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, ranked No. 1 business school by U.S. News & World Report.

“It will be very helpful for our students because we will now be sending them out into the world with a degree that holds weight,” Hancock said.

Laurel might be just one building, she said, but the quality of education offered in the small space is great.
When students first come to campus for a tour, many are shell-shocked at the size, Hancock said.

“Right now, we’re really just using what we have,” she said. “We’re small, but we’re mighty. We’ll make it work.”

The lone standing building at 1215 Eastchester Drive holds five classrooms, one science, one music and three traditional; a modest student center; administrative offices; and a library that offers a view of the lake and wooded campus.

By the end of the tour, Hancock said, potential students and their families often have a clear vision of why Laurel is set up the way it is.

“One of the great things about going to a small school like this is you’re not a number,” she said. “From day one, we’re really taking them in. Whether they become a student here or not, they’re still treated as family, which I think is just something that not many schools can offer.”