Aug 272014


Posted: Aug 26, 2014

By Andrew Ruiz, Digital Journalist

GREENVILLE, N.C. – Welcome back, Pirates! It’s the first day of school for more than 27,000 students.

And this means the East Carolina University campus is bustling once again.

The student’s presence can be felt on campus and across town. Seeing them again just really puts things into perspective as to how slow the summer truly is.

And overall the consensus is. They’re glad to be back.

The heart of the Pirate Nation is alive again. 27,000 students returned to campus on Tuesday.

It’s a clean slate for upperclassmen and a new beginning for freshman.

“I really like it so far,” said Samantha Vanderveer, ECU freshman. “I’ve always kind of been a Pirate so.”

On campus this year, freshman enrollment is about even with last year’s numbers. But ECU Faculty Chair Andrew Morehead says there are more transfer students than in years past.

“This year, we’ve made an increased effort to bring in some more transfers from the community college system,” said Dr. Andrew Morehead, ECU Faculty Chair. “We’ve got almost 300 new transfer students coming in, undergraduate population is growing a little. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a slight decline in the graduate population.”

Morehead credits that to the economy. He says fewer students are going to graduate school as more job opportunities present themselves.

And speaking of jobs, businesses across campus are booming. The sight of students means extra cash for companies young and old.

“I’m excited, yea,” said Scott Davidson, Campus Cookies. “It’s going to be something that will definitely improve our model and something that we really focus on. Our primary demographic is working with the students.”

Campus cookies had its grand opening Monday night and they’re part of the Uptown Superblock.

Students says these options, just make campus life much more enjoyable.

“It’s booming, there is more and more people coming,” said Michael Dugan, ECU junior. “They’re building new dorms, upgrading the campus.”

This weekend will also be big.

It’s the start of the football season. Game time is 8 p.m.

Aug 272014


Aug 26, 2014

More than 25,000 walked onto East Carolina University’s campus on Tuesday for the first day of classes.

Both students and professors agree that textbooks aren’t getting any cheaper. According to College Board, the average student will spend more than $1,000 on textbooks and materials each year.

Bookstores like the Dowdy Student Store and UBE in Uptown Greenville say more students are looking online to buy textbooks. To stay competitive, stores are now letting students rent textbooks as opposed to buying them outright. In some cases it can save students about $40 or more.

“We do everything we can to keep the price of textbooks down,” says Tony Parker, textbook manager at UBE. “We rent textbooks, everything on our floor is pretty much rentable. Also, what we do is scour the third-party market and try to find used books as cheap as we can.”

At least one ECU professor says he’s done away with textbooks altogether. Dowdy Student Store also offers renting books in a digital form as a way for students to save.

Aug 272014


By Lynn Bonner

August 26, 2014

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican and author of a bill to revamp mental health care, came to North Carolina on Tuesday, visiting a state suffering many of the ills his legislation is meant to remedy.

A sharp decline in state psychiatric hospital beds and a lack of meaningful community treatment after a state overhaul in 2001 left wreckage authorities are still trying to fix.

The state hospital beds that remain are usually full. Too many mentally ill people end up in hospital emergency rooms, where they wait, sometimes for days, for available beds.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Dunn Republican who supports Murphy’s bill and accompanied him to a meeting with News & Observer editors and reporters, said emergency rooms are trying to adapt to help mental health patients who may wait up to five days to get a bed: “That’s five days without care. And although those health care professionals are doing the best job they possibly can, they are not psychiatric doctors and nurses.”

The state is trying to figure out alternatives to emergency room care, with the state Department of Health and Human Services convening meetings to develop solutions.

Murphy’s bill is meant to address some of these deficiencies, also common in other states. The proposal was developed in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012, where a mentally ill 20-year-old killed 26 people, including 20 children.

Murphy wants to direct more of the money the federal government spends on mental health to care for seriously ill patients, encourage funding for treatment shown to produce good results, and make it easier for patients to receive the medicine that doctors prescribe.

‘A success story’

Murphy, a practicing psychologist, and Ellmers began the day with a telemedicine demonstration at Daymark Recovery Services in Raleigh, a company that provided mental health services to more than 4,000 people at its facilities around the state without doctors or nurses in the same room.

The state itself is investing in telemedicine as a way to address the shortage of psychiatrists available to consult with other doctors or treat patients. East Carolina University is administering a statewide telepsychiatry network, and more than two dozen hospitals are signed up to use it, with more to come.

“It really is a success story,” said Dave Richard, a DHHS deputy secretary.

Murphy’s bill would set up a $12 million, 4-year grant program to help 10 states develop telepsychiatry and doctor training programs for treating and referring children and young adults.

Mandatory treatment provision

But some of the bill’s prescribed remedies are controversial.

They include a requirement for states to have “assisted outpatient treatment” laws, which allow judges to order people into treatment, to be eligible for a source of federal community mental health treatment money. North Carolina is among the states with such laws that require some severely mentally ill patients to receive outpatient care. Opponents criticize these laws, which they say amount to coerced medical treatment.

Murphy said the laws cover a small percentage of severely mentally ill people who cycle in and out of jail and emergency rooms, yet refuse treatment.

Some people who are severely ill don’t believe they’re sick, he said.

“Why would we say, ‘We know you have a deteriorating brain disease, but we’re not going to help you until you kill someone?’ ” Murphy asked. “Why would we have that standard? It is a perverse and inhumane standard to have for people.”

Researchers at Duke University have reported that costs for patients in New York City declined 50 percent in the first year after assisted outpatient treatment began. Costs dropped more dramatically in five other New York counties studied.

A 1999 Duke study of outpatient commitment in North Carolina found that patients required to be in treatment had about 57 percent fewer hospital readmissions than similar patients who were not required to receive care.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services did not have current information on how many patients have been ordered to receive outpatient treatment or how much it costs.

‘Proactive intervention’ needed

Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina, said having adequate treatment is the central issue because judges can’t order people into treatment that doesn’t exist.

“We don’t have readily accessible mental health services for adults until they go into crisis,” she said. “Until the state does more proactive intervention, it won’t work.”

Murphy hopes to see movement on pieces of his bill this fall. He says the plan will save money, because fewer people will need mental health care in jails, prisons and hospital emergency rooms. But he wants to get proof of that, which is difficult.

The bill has bipartisan support, but Ellmers is the only representative from North Carolina who has signed on. Some Republican colleagues worry about the bill’s costs, Murphy acknowledged.

A Democrat from Arizona is sponsoring legislation that omits some of the controversial elements in Murphy’s proposal.

N.C. effort slowly takes hold

The state, through DHHS, has been working for months on its own plans for reducing emergency room use by people with mental illnesses.

An early effort was to develop a county-by-county directory of emergency mental health treatment services. Another project includes an education program to help young people. The regional mental health agencies are also actively strengthening their own crisis services, Richard said.

The plans have yet to show results, however. Hospital emergency department admissions have not dropped significantly, Richard said.

“It will take time to see big drops,” he said. “We haven’t seen any dramatic changes.”

Deby Dihoff, executive director of NAMI NC, said there was more the state could do. For one, mobile crisis teams that regional mental health offices pay for should operate properly, she said. The crisis teams are supposed to handle emergencies so that patients don’t have to go to the hospital, but too often teams end up taking people to emergency rooms, Dihoff said, resulting in charges for both the crisis team and hospital treatment.

Hospitals are required to report how many psychiatric beds they have available, but the policy is not enforced, Dihoff said. So hospital social workers spend hours calling around the state, she said, searching for places to send patients who are languishing in emergency rooms.

Dihoff said she was frustrated by the slow pace of progress of the state effort. “Let’s move things along a little more quickly,” she said.

Aug 272014


Aug 26, 2014

Chapel Hill, N.C. — Students, faculty and staff at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill now have access to a free app that turns smartphones into personal safety devices.

The Rave Guardian Campus Safety App, an initiative between the school’s student affairs and public safety departments, allows users to create an online safety network where they can check in with family, friends and UNC police officers.

The app can be used to:

  • Create a safety timer to notify people they trust to check in on them when they are alone or in an unfamiliar place. They can also activate the timer to alert UNC police officers and any other designated friends or family if the timer isn’t turned off within a set time.
  • Invite family members, friends or others they trust to be “guardians,” and communicate with them through the app.
  • Call UNC officers directly for help if they are in trouble and send text tips – including photos – if they see something suspicious.
  • Link directly to a user-created safety profile that contains information, including residence details (both home and campus) and medical conditions. The profiles are visible to UNC Public Safety officers and 911 centers nationwide with Smart911 technology.

School officials said UNC is the state’s first college or university to use the app, which can be downloaded to Apple and Android devices.

Aug 272014


By Craig Jarvis

August 27, 2014

RALEIGH — A woman state health officials hired a year ago to work on Medicaid alternatives – a new position that paid $95,000 annually despite her thin resume – is resigning.

Margaret “Mardy” Peal will leave Sept. 19, to take advantage of an opportunity that will allow her, a single mother, to be at home with her children more often, according to her resignation letter.

Peal, 43, was hired by the state Department of Health and Human Services as a senior planner. Her salary was $20,000 a year more than the highest category of planner in DHHS, but was allowed because she was a political hire exempt from civil-service protections and restrictions.

Although she received a master’s degree in health education from East Carolina University, and spent three years as a lecturer in standardized patient care at the university’s Brody School of Medicine, she had been absent from the health care labor force for more than 10 years.

She served on the board of a Greenville pregnancy center that discourages women from having abortions, and organized the Eastern North Carolina Tea Party’s first rally, in 2009.

Her hiring at DHHS drew criticism because it fit into a pattern of controversial personnel decisions by Secretary Aldona Wos, including high pay for young, inexperienced officials, and a contract with someone who works for her husband’s company.

As part of a team working on overhauling the Medicaid system, Peal helped develop focus groups around the state that brought together doctors, hospitals and other stakeholders to explore options to help control costs.

The McCrory administration proposed that doctors and hospitals form “accountable care organizations” that would be held responsible for the medical services they provided and how much they spent. These ACO provider networks would have shared money saved if they spent less than anticipated while showing Medicaid patients were getting good care.

The House adopted a version of the plan that would have required provider-led groups to be fully responsible for Medicaid budget overruns by 2020. The Senate did not agree to either plan, and nothing was resolved before the session ended.

“I want to thank Mardy for her service to the state and for being a valuable member of our team,” Dr. Robin Cummings, the state’s Medicaid director, said in a statement.

In her resignation letter, Peal called her time at DHHS “the high point of my professional experience” and praised Wos for her “passion and tireless commitment to taking care of North Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens.” Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed.

Aug 272014


By Andrew Carter

August 27, 2014

CHAPEL HILL — The University of North Carolina is investigating what it describes as “an incident” and what Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday reported was hazing among members of the football team that turned into an alleged assault.

The website reported that Jackson Boyer, a non-scholarship wide receiver from Chapel Hill, sustained a concussion during an alleged altercation at his room at the A-Loft Hotel near campus, where the team stayed during preseason camp.

Kevin Best, a UNC football team spokesman, released a statement in which he said the university was “aware of an incident involving members” of the football team.

“We take this allegation seriously and the university is conducting a thorough review,” Best said.

Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, declined to comment on UNC’s investigation when approached on Monday night at Top of the Hill restaurant, where coach Larry Fedora was holding his first weekly radio show of the season. After the show ended, Fedora also said he couldn’t comment.

Asked why he couldn’t, he said, “I just can’t comment.”

Yahoo! Sports reported the alleged incident happened during the first week of August. Boyer, Fedora said on Tuesday, is still a member of the team and has been practicing recently.

UNC in recent years has been rocked by scandals, from an NCAA investigation that led to a postseason ban for football, to former high-profile athletes alleging academic impropriety to the dismissal of P.J. Hairston – the basketball team’s leading scorer two seasons ago – because of impermissible benefits, to wide-ranging problems in the African- and Afro-American Studies Department.

The NCAA recently reopened its investigation into academic misconduct involving the relationship between suspect AFAM courses and the athletic department. The status of that investigation, and when it might be complete, is unclear.

Amid those issues, the university at times has received criticism for a perceived lack of transparency, and Carol Folt, who is entering her second full academic year as the UNC Chancellor, wrote a public letter in the summer outlining the university’s commitment to increased transparency. Fedora denied the notion that he was being secretive amid the hazing allegation.

“Nobody’s saying secrecy is the best policy,” he said after his radio show. “We issued a statement today and that’s it. That’s the statement. I don’t think it’s secrecy. I mean, you know how I am, I don’t even talk about the quarterbacks (competition). So I haven’t changed.”

The university has a clear anti-hazing policy. The policy, posted on the university website, reads, in part, “UNC expressly prohibits hazing or any activity that puts a student’s physical, emotional or psychological health and safety at risk.”

Boyer’s mother, Kimber, did not return a phone message seeking comment on Tuesday. Boyer is a sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining. He walked onto the team at UNC last season after graduating from East Chapel Hill High.

Fedora said he didn’t know when UNC’s investigation into the alleged hazing might be complete.

“When I can say something, I’m sure I will say something,” he said. “But right now I can’t.”

Aug 272014


By David Menconi

August 27, 2014

RALEIGH — If all had gone according to plan, the Gregg Museum of Art & Design’s expansion would be almost fully funded now.

The N.C. State University museum is about $1.4 million short of the $9.2 million required to create its new home. Gregg management was hoping for some help from Wake County, in the form of a $1 million grant from the county’s hotel tax fund.

But last week, the Gregg’s request was denied on a 4-3 party-line vote, with all four Republican commissioners on the Wake County board voting no. At the same meeting, commissioners approved a total of $6 million for a pair of sports-related projects in Knightdale and Morrisville.

“We respect the board’s dedication to sports,” said Christina Menges, development director for Arts NC State. “But we had hoped to open their eyes to the building blocks of education, creativity and cultural exposure.”

N.C. State has committed $3.6 million to the project, with the rest to come from donations and grants. Museum director Roger Manley said that Gregg management was “not hanging every hat on that rack,” referring to the Wake County grant.

But the commissioners’ no vote leaves the project with some fundraising ground to make up with ground-breaking scheduled for early next year.

“We’re still on course to start construction in February or March,” said Menges.

Once started, construction should take around 18 months. It will add 16,000 square feet of gallery space to the historic chancellor’s residence, just east of the Memorial Belltower on Hillsborough Street.

The project has been in the works for close to a decade, since not long after N.C. State announced plans to build a new chancellor’s residence on Centennial Campus. While awaiting its new space at the old residence, the Gregg was displaced from its former Talley Student Center space last year and is currently a “museum without walls” that holds exhibitions in other spaces around the area.

Part of the Gregg’s pitch to Wake County was that the new space will be able to generate revenue as well as hotel business from rentals for weddings and other events. But the board’s majority was unmoved.

In the meantime, the project’s price tag continues to go up even before construction gets started. The current $9.2 million figure is nearly $1 million more than the project was estimated to cost in December 2013.

“That’s because of increased construction costs, which continue to rise,” said Menges. “Building costs, they are what they are, so we have to fold projected increases into the total amount. We’re keeping our fingers crossed it doesn’t go higher.”

Aug 262014


By Ira Boudway August 21, 2014

Don't Call Harold Varner the Next Tiger WoodsPhotograph by Sergiy Barchuk

“No knocks on golf, but it’s very boring,” says Harold Varner III. He’s sitting in the clubhouse of Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate in Overland Park, Kan., south of Kansas City. Framed prints of golfers in jaunty pantaloons hang on the walls. A smooth jazz saxophone pipes through the speakers. Varner isn’t talking about playing golf, which he does for a living, but about watching it and also its stuffy, clubby culture. He thinks the PGA Tour is impenetrable for casual fans: “They don’t set it up for people who just don’t give a s-‍-‍- about golf,” he says. He speaks of going to a Nascar race with his dad and enjoying it without knowing anything about the sport. “Why can’t we set the PGA up for someone who wants to have fun?”

Since he graduated from East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., two years ago, Varner, who just turned 24, has been trying to earn a spot on the PGA Tour. He’s in Kansas for the Midwest Classic, a stop on the Tour, which is a step below the PGA Tour and the only way onto it for most pros. Of the 156 players in the field at the tournament, Varner stands out for his long drives. At 5 foot 9 he generates a compact, powerful swing and ranks third on the tour with an average drive distance of more than 315 yards. “I hit it really far, really far,” he says, matter-of-factly.

He’s also the only African American at the Midwest. “I don’t dwell on it,” he says with a slight North Carolina drawl. “It never affects me, because everyone treats me pretty well.” The line of questioning mildly annoys him. “I don’t understand why people still think along those terms, like, ‘Man, he’s the only black kid out here,’ ” he says. “Why can I not just be a kid?”

The PGA has plenty of 24-year-olds. What it needs is another Tiger Woods. Golf is in the midst of a major decline in the U.S., with the number of players and courses falling alongside equipment sales and TV ratings. Last year alone, golf lost more than a million players in the U.S., according to Pellucid, a consulting company that tracks the industry. At its peak in 2002, the game had almost 30 million players. Now there are 23 million. For eight years running, according to the National Golf Foundation, more courses have closed than have opened.

Young golfers are not replacing the old. For a typical Sunday broadcast on CBS, according to Nielsen data from Horizon Media, PGA tournaments draw an audience with a median age over 65. And according to Pellucid’s consumer data, whites play golf almost five times as often as blacks and Latinos—1.8 rounds per capita per year vs. 0.4 rounds. Jim Koppenhaver, the company’s president, points to the sport’s steep costs and the lack of a farm system in minority communities as the largest roadblocks. Woods, he says, brought out new viewers but not that many new players.

“I don’t understand why people still think along those terms, like, ‘Man, he’s the only black kid out here.’ Why can I not just be a kid?”

Varner isn’t a Woods-level prodigy, but his youth, long game, and easygoing personality give him the potential to become a golf celebrity and attract a new demographic to the sport. For now, he’s just another guy trying to make the cut week after week in the PGA’s version of the minor leagues. He has one sponsor, the ball and club maker Srixon (5110:JP), which pays him about $30,000 per year, and Southern Tide, an apparel company in South Carolina, provides him with shirts, pants, and belts. He arrived in Kansas on Monday, flying alone from Jacksonville Beach, Fla., where he lives with a housemate between tournaments. He’s staying for the week in a rented house with three other players and two caddies at $150 per head. He pays for his own flight and car rental, though the tour subsidizes the insurance fee for car drivers younger than 25. “That’s huge,” he says.

Varner also covers his caddie’s pay of about $900 for the week. His costs for the tournament come to about $2,000. He can break even if he makes the cut on Friday, after the first two rounds, when the field is narrowed to about 70. At the Midwest Classic, the winner pockets $108,000 of the $600,000 purse. Varner has yet to win any of his 15 tournaments so far this year, but his $117,547 in prizes puts him 28th on the money list, well within reach of qualifying for the PGA Tour, where the average purse is $6.6 million. “I, 100 percent, will be playing on the tour next year,” he says. “There’s no reason for me not to be.”