Each week, staff at Carolina Journal looks back at the week in N.C. politics and chooses several interesting, relevant stories you may have missed.
Medical bills and price transparency: Patients will have an easier time knowing what they’ll pay for medical services at UNC Health. The system will roll out an online tool that will give patients an estimate of the cost of some procedures and visits. But the new price transparency is the result of new rules from the Trump administration. President Trump required hospitals to post their prices by January. Hospitals sued to keep prices secret, but they lost the first round in court in June. A federal judge ruled that hospitals were “attacking transparency measures generally” to restrict patients’ access to medical prices. Medical prices are notoriously opaque, and hospitals account for much of the soaring cost of health care in the U.S. In North Carolina, some hospitals charge patients more than twice as much as others — but multiple studies show that higher prices don’t correspond with better care. New Hanover Regional Medical Center charged patients with private insurance some 219% of Medicare’s rates. But Vidant Edgecombe Hospital doubled those prices in Tarboro — and raked in 455% of Medicare’s rates, according to Rand Corporation. “UNC Health is a leader in providing innovative care and services for our patients,” said Dr. Wesley Burks, CEO of UNC Health, in a news release. “We understand the importance of price transparency in health care. This estimator is about improving our patients’ experience and giving them more control in managing their health.”
COVID-19 vaccines: North Carolina could get its first doses of a coronavirus vaccine next week. North Carolina could get 85,800 doses of the Pfizer vaccine in the first shipment. Those doses will go to vaccinate high-risk health care workers who’re working with or near COVID-19 patients. If the FDA and the CDC authorizes the Pfizer vaccine over the weekend, 11 hospitals in North Carolina will receive doses from the first shipment. More than 70,000 people participated in the clinical trials for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and both boasted efficacy levels of around 95% in trial results. Patients won’t have to pay to get vaccinated, as the government or insurers will cover the cost of vaccines. “We will soon have the tool we’ve been waiting for to help us defeat this virus and get back in control of our lives,” state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 10.
Another Facebook lawsuit: North Carolina is suing to break up Facebook, along with 48 states and the District of Columbia. Federal regulators filed a separate antitrust lawsuit Wednesday, Dec. 9, accusing Facebook of acting as a monopoly to crush competition. The Federal Trade Commission seeks to force Facebook to shed its Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services. Facebook settled the last lawsuit brought by the FTC in 2019, when it agreed to pay a record-breaking $5 billion fine for privacy violations. Facebook argues that the lawsuits are “revisionist history” that ignores the company’s innovation and investment. “Facebook is a prime example of what happens when a company gets too big and too powerful — people suffer,” N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein said in a press release. “For years, Facebook has used its monopoly power as a social networking website to stifle competition and innovation and to sell alarming amounts of user data to make money, all at the expense of the many people who use its platform. North Carolinians deserve better – they deserve choice, and they deserve better privacy.”
COVID-19 outbreak at superintendent conference: Two people have tested positive for the coronavirus after the N.C. School Superintendents’ Association held an in-person conference last week. The advocacy group met for a multi-day winter conference in the Grandover Resort & Conference Center, WRAL reported. The two attendees who tested positive are doing well, according to the association. Gov. Roy Cooper’s rules restrict indoor gatherings to fewer than 10 people, but they also allow conference centers to host up to 100 people with social distancing.
COVID-19 in prisons: The coronavirus is spreading within North Carolina’s prisons. Their case count has roughly doubled since the end of September, jumping to 6,117 cases from 3,065 coronavirus infections, as of Thursday, Dec. 10. Both recoveries and deaths have risen with the case count. After four inmates died over five days, the death toll numbers 28 inmates, while 5,071 inmates have recovered. Active cases at Warren Correctional Institute have outpaced Tabor Correctional Institution, which had the largest outbreak with 562 of the roughly 1,400 inmates testing positive, according to data from the N.C. Department of Public Safety.