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After 35 years of letter-writing, English Pen-pal visits Winston-Salem woman

In the days before the Internet, Allison Peple sent a Winston-Salem postcard 4,000 miles away as part of a chain letter, never expecting a lifelong friendship would be forged.

But 36 years after Peple first received a reply from England, her pen-pal, Tracey Wood-Wolfe is visiting her in Winston-Salem, their kids meeting for the first time

“The postcard said ‘I’m 10 years old. If you’re interested, I’m looking for a pen-pal,’” said Peple, who was 11 at the time and had just moved to Winston-Salem. “We wrote for years, all through college, in the days before Facebook. We had very similar interests in music.”

The unlikely friendship originated with a chain letter Peple received in the early 1980s that suggested she send a postcard to 10 international addresses.

While Peple received reply-postcards from others in Zimbabwe, Australia and other countries, Wood-Wolfe’s postcard — which folded out to reveal 10 different pictures of England and included a detailed, personalized message — kick-started monthly letters between the two.

Wood-Wolfe’s hometown of Southampton, a port city in England, was similar in population-size to Winston-Salem, but the two connected on the many differences between their worlds.

“It was cool to hear about her life and how different it was. I was a huge Duran Duran fan, so I thought it was so cool she was English,” said Peple, who will be 47 in August. “Now that we both have kids, we have even more in common as mothers.”

Since they began letter-writing, the two have met several times over the years, including Wood-Wolfe’s 1999 wedding in Ireland where Peple and her now-husband were the only Americans in attendance.

When Peple got married a few years later, Wood-Wolfe and her husband came to North Carolina, marveling at the size of the state as they explored Cape Hatteras to the Biltmore House.

“It’s super fascinating to everyone else how this came about, but to me it’s always been normal for us to keep in touch,” said Peple, a mother of two. “Even after years, it’s like no time has passed. We’ve known each other since we were 10.”

Their first face-to-face meeting came in 1995 after 12 years of sending letters back and forth.

After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in psychology, Peple embarked on a work exchange program in England, where she spent Easter with Wood-Wolfe at her parent’s house.

Wood-Wolfe, 46, took her on a historical trek across the country from castle tours to Stonehenge.

“I thought ‘Man, if she comes to our country, I’ll have nothing to show her. She’s got castles older than the U.S., we’ve got Walmart,’” Peple said with a laugh.

Fortunately, seeing Walmart — which they do not have in England — was a top priority for Wood-Wolfe’s 14-year-old son, who came equipped with a list that also included taking photos at Chick-fil-A, Wendy’s and IHOP.

Peple, who works at Robinhood Road Baptist Preschool, said it’s been a cool experience seeing her son and daughter bond with Wood-Wolfe’s two kids.

The four children — ranging from age 8 to 16 — have made plans to go do some “American things,” like see a movie at the Grande, sample Krispy Kreme doughnuts and shop at Target, she said.

The families also arranged to do some quintessential North Carolina activities, like visiting Old Salem, walking at Reynolda Gardens, hiking at Stone Mountain and attending Thursday’s Dash baseball game.

“We’ve kept in touch through Christmas cards and writing letters, and then Facebook came about, so we’ve been able to share pictures of our kids — we each had a girl and a boy,” Peple said. “Then she said ‘I’m coming to the states in 2019,’ so we wanted to introduce them to some local stuff.”

In the past week, the families have tried some of the local cuisine, like Lexington Barbecue where they had hush-puppies for the first time, and watched Fourth of July fireworks together.

Wood-Wolfe and her family, who will go to Disneyworld this weekend, have been struck most by the brutal heat and awed by the friendliness of city residents, Peple said.

Peple, who still has Wood-Wolfe’s original postcard, said her friends’ visit has also been a good opportunity to teach her children about broadening their worlds.

“Nowadays this wouldn’t happen. With the technology differences, it’s a different world,” Peple said. “It’s been really neat sharing our cultures and I gained a friend for life.”

Photos by Allison Lee Isley/Journal  

ABOVE: Aspen Woodside blows glitter on an American flag’s stars while working on decorations for a float sponsored by a Sparta-area LGBTQ group.

Allison Lee Isley/Journal  

RIGHT: Rebecca Allen, a member of the float-building committee and the mother of a transgender son, wears a shirt that reads “Be careful who you hate. It could be someone you love.”

N.C. judge denies stay requests from providers appealing Medicaid waiver rollout decisions

A state administrative law court judge has turned down legal appeals by three medical groups that were denied participation in the latest Medicaid waiver initiative.

Medicaid recipients in a 13-county section of the Triad and Northwest North Carolina, along with a 14-county section of central North Carolina that includes Alamance County, are scheduled to start service through prepaid health plans, or PHPs, in November. Medicaid recipients in the rest of the state are scheduled to start in February.

Medicaid serves 2.1 million North Carolinians. Of that total, 1.6 million will be enrolled in managed care under a federal waiver approved in October 2018.

PHPs represent a major overhaul in how the state pays for Medicaid patients’ care. Currently, health providers are paid under a fee-for-service system.

PHPs, by contrast, will pay providers a set amount per month for each patient’s costs. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services will reimburse the plans.

On June 26, Administrative Lawn Judge Tenisha Jacobs denied requests to stay the rollout filed by My Health by Health Providers, Aetna Better Health of North Carolina and Optima Family Care of North Carolina Inc.

The rulings came nearly five months after the DHHS announced on Feb. 5 that it had selected AmeriHealth Caritas North Carolina, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, UnitedHealthcare of North Carolina, and WellCare of North Carolina to serve as statewide PHPs over MyHealth, Aetna and Optima.

MyHealth was formed by 12 North Carolina health-care systems, including Novant Health Inc., Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Cone Health.

On April 9, MyHealth appealed the DHHS decision four days after the department denied MyHealth’s bid protest that would have added it to the PHP provider list.

MyHealth officials could not be immediately reached for comment on the rulings.

The DHHS also chose just one of three potential provider-led entities, or PLEs, even though N.C. General Assembly approved having up to 12 such groups last year. Each of the six state regions could have had up to five PLEs providing services.

‘Flawed design’

MyHealth has described the DHHS format as a “deeply flawed design and evaluation process.”

“My Health is requesting that Medicaid patients be given the choice of a provider-led entity operated by North Carolina’s most experienced health systems and its 15,000 physician partners, instead of out-of-state insurance companies with little or no Medicaid experience in North Carolina.

“This is the choice the General Assembly intended,” My Health argued.

Jacobs said in her ruling that the DHHS’ evaluation committee “determined that MyHealth was the sixth-ranked” applicant — behind Aetna — based on its evaluation format.

Jacobs said MyHealth “is not likely to succeed” in showing that state regulations require the DHHS to award six regional contracts even though legislators allowed for up to 12.

The judge said “it is not likely” MyHealth could prove the DHHS “erred in failing to consider it for regional contracts.”

Jacobs used similar language in her denials of the Aetna and Optima appeals.

MyHealth claimed in its motion that the request for proposal format was “biased against” PLEs. Jacobs determined that MyHealth would not succeed in challenging the DHHS’ request for proposal processes.

“Although MyHealth may disagree with the scores that the evaluation committee awarded its proposal on discrete questions, absent MyHealth showing that DHHS abused its broad discretion or erred in some other manner, there is no basis for this tribunal to disturb the scores awarded by DHHS,” Jacobs wrote.

Other factor in play

Although the three groups’ stay requests were unsuccessful with their stay requests, the rollout of the waiver initiative still could grind to a halt or face a lengthy delay — a ripple effect from dispute over the 2019-20 state budget.

On June 28, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the state budget compromise passed by the Republican-led legislature.

Cooper is insisting that a form of Medicaid expansion be included in the state budget, while key GOP legislative leaders are pushing back hard against the request.

The Medicaid rollout is dependent upon $218 million in start-up funding in the 2019-20 state budget.

According to the office of N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden who represents Rockingham County, that money would go toward patient enrollment-broker contracts, provider credentialing, data analytics and other program-design components.

“Funds needed to keep our disaster response moving forward are in jeopardy,” said state Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, a key House budget writer.

“Our Medicaid reform plan will stop and be unable to move forward on our timeline, risking major improvements in care to Medicaid patients who need medical care,” Lambeth said.

DHHS called the prepaid health, or PHP, plan initiative the largest procurement in its history. The PHP contracts will represent a $6 billion expense annually for three years, followed by two one-year options, so the total contract could be worth $30 billion.

Medicaid recipients were scheduled to begin enrollment in PHPs this month. If a recipient does not choose a PHP by Sept. 30, one will be chosen for them.

In most instances, recipients will be able to be seen by the same providers they have now.

Threats prompt warning for young people in LGBTQ community to steer clear of float in Sparta parade

SPARTA — Tired of seeing LGBTQ kids bullied and shamed in Alleghany County, some parents and friends of these young people have entered a float in the town of Sparta’s annual Fourth of July parade scheduled for Saturday as a way to demonstrate solidarity.

“It was, ‘Let’s show these kids how they are loved and supported and accepted for who they are,’” said Rebecca Allen, who has a transgender son.

Working off the parade’s theme, “America the Beautiful,” the float will feature a barn, with depictions of the nearby mountains, Christmas tree farms and the New River, set atop a 20-foot-long truck bed. Conspicuously missing from the float will be the young people themselves.

Alarmed by the number of disparaging and threatening posts on social media, float organizers have asked those under 18 years old not to be on or walk alongside the float as it travels down the main street of this picturesque mountain town 70 miles northwest of Winston-Salem.

Instead, the young people will watch from a designated “cheering section,” a measure that float organizers said they are taking as a safety precaution.

A few adults will walk alongside the float, which is being built and sponsored by a local LGBTQ group that plans to become a chapter of PFLAG, a national organization that helps families and allies support the LGBTQ community.

“All of those walking with us are level-headed and can handle any insult being thrown our way,” Allen said of the adults accompanying the float. “They know to smile and keep on walking.”

Some of the posts on social media have talked about throwing tomatoes at the float; another person wrote that he had a paintball gun. Someone else mentioned a high likelihood of gunfire and that people should stay away.

Allen said she and others in the float committee are taking these posts as threats.

Sparta Police Chief Bob Lane said his office is investigating the comments.

“We’re aware of the complaints. It seems to be more Facebook chatter than anything, but we are investigating,” Lane said.

His officers will take “extra precautions” at the parade, but he declined to elaborate.

Deputies with the Alleghany County Sheriff’s Office will help staff the parade, as they routinely do with large gatherings in the county, Sheriff Bryan Maines said.

Many area residents have been supportive of the float, with some pitching in money to help pay for it as well as an after-party for the young people at a local bowling alley, Allen said.

“There have been a lot of extremely supportive people who love we are doing this,” she said.

Scott Money, the president of the Winston-Salem chapter of PFLAG, said the negative comments being made on social media can have a damaging effect on young people in the LGBTQ community. Kids in rural areas may feel particularly vulnerable because there are fewer services, causing them to feel more isolated and more likely to lie about their identity.

“It makes them feel unwelcome. It makes them feel less than human because there are people throwing out these comments. They are seen as a problem in a community where they are not allowed to be their authentic selves,” Money said. “It sends a message to them that they are causing trouble.”

Something as simple as a float in a community parade can show them they have allies, he said.

Allen said a PFLAG chapter is in the works, though it could be a few months before it becomes official. It will be the only one in an area that covers Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes, Watauga and Avery counties.

In the meantime, the float in Saturday’s parade will include some important information for young people in the LGBTQ community who may be struggling — the number for a 24-hour suicide hotline.