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Local
A 1,000-pound tree crushed her house. The 82-year-old Winston-Salem woman is still dealing with the 'inconvenience.'

Two minutes after Britt Mittemeijer left her kitchen, a 1,000-pound red oak tree crashed through the room flattening everything in its path.

Mittemeijer, 82, who was in the next room over, rushed in to find a massive hole in her roof, splintered wood and a tree trunk crushing three rooms of her home off Reynolda Road in Winston-Salem.

“I heard this enormous explosion. I figure it was some divine intervention I wasn’t there,” Mittemeijer said. “The kitchen was completely gutted. I was in pure disbelief.”

The incident in late May left Mittemeijer’s kitchen, dining room and living room demolished, but spared the two bedrooms, where she and her daughter, Andrea, were.

But because the structural integrity of the house was compromised, Mittemeijer has been staying with her friend, Catherine Jourdan, while she waits for her house to be repaired.

“The way I look at this whole thing, I don’t see it as a disaster, I see it as a great inconvenience,” said Mittemeijer, who has lived in the house for the past 30 years. “My friends have been absolutely fabulous. It fills me with a lot of gratitude.”

While insurance will cover most of the cost of the damage, Mittemeijer has a $2,500 deductible she has to meet first.

Jourdan started a GoFundMe page for her friend, which has since amassed more than $1,300.

“Everybody says ‘What can I do?’” Jourdan said. “You don’t really need one more chicken pie, you need something tangible to help you put your life back together.”

The tree fell after a brief rainy period, but not in a storm, making it all the more unexpected, she said.

AfterDisaster in Greensboro helped clean up the house and pack up the remaining possessions, which was a blessing, Mittemeijer said. Most of the things in the two bedrooms and office space were able to be recovered.

Repairs to the roof and house are expected to take several months and have already been delayed by the discovery of asbestos.

Mittemeijer and her daughter, who has been staying at a hotel close to her work, expect to move back sometime in October, she said.

Mittemeijer said the whole incident has reinforced the importance of friends, family and helping those in need.

“I’m holding up very well with the help of my friends,” she said. “I’m very, very grateful for how people are helping us in this difficult time.”


Z-no-digital
More development on Burke Mill Road? Residents voice concerns about Truliant's expansion plans

Siobhan Murphy looked as if she would have preferred to be anywhere else other than in a stuffy meeting room on a Thursday night talking about traffic and the vagaries of urban planning.

Yet there she stood providing updates about a rezoning petition filed by a single homeowner on behalf of the Truliant Federal Credit Union that could, if approved, alter forever the character of several neighborhoods and add considerably to existing congestion on Burke Mill Road.

“Hanes Mall (Boulevard) II,” Council Member John Larson called it. “You guys have to understand Burke Mill is a mess. And if there was an easy solution, we’d have done it already.”

The issue for nearby residents is simple: how hard — or whether — to fight a proposal that would allow the credit union to build new buildings and an access road from Burke Mill that would connect to Hanes Mall Boulevard.

Development is coming. The other end of Burke Mill, already choked by offices and retail sprawl, shows the way. A bank or gas station? Apartments or offices?

“I just bought my house,” Murphy said. “I’d like to stay in it for 30 years. I just don’t know.”

Fighting City Hall

At first blush, Murphy looks like an unlikely leader in the latest iteration of an age-old battle: Fighting City Hall.

She’s young, much younger than most of the other two dozen representatives of neighborhoods along Burke Mill and London Lane. Her jeans, Birkenstock sandals and tattoos stood out in contrast to others’ sensible shoes, Bermuda shorts and summer-weight dresses.

But as soon as she started talking, it became apparent why she’s stepped up. She’s organized, clear thinking and a good communicator.

“What do you guys think? Go over what (developers) told us and questions after?” she asked in a way that wasn’t really a question.

The shorthand version, gleaned from a recent meeting with Truliant and a developer: The credit union wants to change the site plan for its existing 17-acre headquarters off Hanes Mall Boulevard to account for adding one building in the next one to three years and perhaps a second in eight to 10.

For that to work — and to accommodate as many as 900 additional employees — the bank would buy a single house on Burke Mill if current zoning laws can be changed to allow for an access road from Burke Mill.

“It would have a gate accessible only by employees with card keys, landscaping, a buffer and would be set back 200 feet,” Murphy said.

And there’s the rub.

Burke Mill, as anybody who’s ever cut through from points north and east, is already clogged with more than 14,000 cars a day. Planners have green-lighted projects at the end including Academy Sports, office space, apartments and another big financial institution.

Approving this new request would open for the first time neighborhoods on Burke Mill north of I-40 to commercial development.

Let one financial institution expand, add an innocuous private road, and who knows what comes next?

“We want to keep it residential,” said W.A. Johnson of Williamsburg Square neighborhood. “We can do petitions and fight it. We might lose. It might already be a done deal. But hell, we’re going to fight it.”

Weighing options

Other neighbors weren’t so sure. Jean Thomas, of the Charlestown development, which sits just uphill from Truliant, noted that the credit union went to great lengths to work with neighbors when it first built in the early 2000s.

“Everything they said they would do, they did,” she said, referring to buffering trees and vegetation. “They didn’t want to see us any more than we wanted to see them.”

That’s the choice. The devil they know vs. one who hasn’t introduced himself yet. Development is fast approaching, and nearby residents are staring at a decision.

“Can it be mitigated?” asked Larson, a member of Council who represents folks in the neighborhood surrounding London Lane — a popular cut-through from Ebert Street. “Can you preserve the residential character?

“Truliant has been a good neighbor. What’s your best option? You run the risk down the road that (the property) could be something else.”

Like apartments. Or a massive gas station/convenience store open at all hours.

Larson, who took a seat in the back, offered pragmatic advice. (Council Member Dan Besse, who represents the area, was away at a conference. Bet your last nickel Besse would have been there if possible, though): Meet again with the developer and credit union officials. Put everything on the table — buffering, landscaping, turn lanes, traffic lights etc. — and get it in writing.

“Have that conversation now,” Larson said. “Don’t show up (July 8) at the planning board not having done that.”

And since there’s an ongoing, city-sponsored traffic study about Burke Mill that’s supposed to wrap up later this summer, Larson suggested, ask if they’d agree to delay putting the proposal before the City County Planning Board until it’s complete.

“We can politely ask, ‘Can you just slow this down a minute until the study is completed?’” said neighbor Beverly Freeman.

As the meeting wound down and everyone who wanted had her (or his) say, one other less obvious thing about the meeting became apparent.

Residents bound by a common concern about traffic, development and property values were able to discuss civilly different viewpoints. An elected city official and a paid professional city staff member sat down to listen.

No one shouted, ranted or vilified anyone with a different opinion. Compromises were raised and talked about. Facts — real, honest to God facts — were not in question.

Weird, but in style and substance, this small meeting looked — and sounded — as if the system was working as intended.


Local
Cone Health says it won't accept health insurance from state employees under proposed reimbursement plan

Cone Health said Monday it will not sign a contract for the State Health Plan’s new reimbursement program, meaning Cone’s facilities and doctors could be out-of-network for state employees starting Jan. 1, 2020.

Cone, based in Greensboro, is the first Triad health-care system to reject the Clear Pricing Project contract championed by state Treasurer Dale Folwell.

UNC Health Care counterproposal

In October, Folwell launched his attempt to move the SHP to a government pricing model tied to Medicare reimbursement rates, which typically are lower than hospitals currently receive for services.

The treasurer has the authority to decide on reimbursement cuts. Folwell’s revised deadline for signing up expired at midnight Monday.

Cone said in a statement that a projected $26 million in lower SHP reimbursement would “reduce, and in some cases eliminate, services we provide daily. Thereby, risking our ability to invest in the future.”

“Cone Health has no choice but to decline joining the (project),” the system said.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center said Monday it will not comment on its contract stance.

Novant Health Inc.’s latest comment included that “it is our understanding that State Health Plan members will have an opportunity to verify provider’s network status after July 1, and before their open enrollment (for 2020) begins on Sept. 29.”

The treasurer’s office confirmed Monday there have been three hospitals — N.C. Specialty Hospital in Durham, Martin General Hospital in Williamston and Randolph Health in Asheboro — to sign the contract, which is administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C.

Folwell said Randolph’s decision to sign the contract was done in part to provide a more dependable revenue stream for a hospital that is pursuing an acquirer. Randolph negotiated with Cone for 15 months before talks ended in June 2018.

UNC proposal

Among the state’s healthcare systems, UNC Health Care appears to be the most active with its opposition to the contract.

That includes submitting a counter-proposal to the contract to Gov. Roy Cooper and Republican legislative leaders on Friday.

Dr. Wesley Burks, chief executive of UNC Health Care and dean of its medical school, told the SHP leadership Thursday that the system “is not in a position” to sign the current contract.

“While we crafted our plan independently, we believe it achieves many of the principles Treasurer Folwell outlines,” Burks said. “We do not speak for other hospitals and providers in the community; however, as actively working in other segments, we believe these ideas will be broadly welcomed.”

“Over the next few weeks, we are optimistic we will be able to discuss these alternatives in detail with the leadership of the SHP,” UNC Health Care said.

“We are confident we will be able to reach agreement in ample time to avoid any impact upon the provision of, or access to, care for state employees, retirees, and their dependents.”

Folwell called the counterproposal “a silly back-to-the-future strategy that was presented to the previous treasurer and State Health Plan administration over three years ago and was rejected because of its lack of transparency and no concrete, measurable savings to the plan.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Monday that “I am glad to see that UNC is coming to the table to work together with the State Health Plan and Treasurer Folwell on a solution that works for everybody.”

House Bill 184, which would halt Folwell’s initiative for at least a year in favor of a legislative study report, cleared the state House by a 75-36 vote April 3.

It has yet to be acted upon in the Senate since being sent to the Rules and Operations committee April 4. Berger signaled last week he has no desire to address HB184.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s office said Monday it is reviewing the UNC Health Care proposal.

“The office believes the state should halt the treasurer’s plan until hospitals across the state can collaborate and provide input to assure patients will get the care they need.”

Folwell said in response to the governor’s office that Cooper “has always been aligned with the billionaire nonprofits, and against those who teach, protect, and serve.”

“As treasurer, he has shown me zero interest in the financial solvency of North Carolina. The insolvency of the State Health Plan ranks right behind Illinois at $32 billion.

“We didn’t do it, we discovered it — and now, we have the responsibility to fix it,” Folwell said.

Berger said Monday, “it is vital that the long term viability of the State Health Plan is secured and that our state employees continue to have access to high quality health care at a reasonable cost.”

Berger said that hospitals and providers “will only be out of contract if they fail to come to an agreement with the State Health Plan and the treasurer.”

“Although the deadline is today, the State Health Plan has reimbursement contracts with providers that run until the end of 2019, so I am still hopeful they can come to a solution that does not result in state employees seeing a reduction in available providers.”

Folwell’s proposal

There are more than 720,000 state employees and their dependents and retirees who haven’t qualified for Medicare and their dependents as SHP participants.

Their decision-making process begins in early fall when they chose which providers they want for 2020 coverage.

“State employees have earned health coverage,” Cone said. “However, it is an incomplete benefit if it doesn’t include their local hospital.”

When asked about in-network options for SHP participants to go to Cone providers, the system said it “encourages them to take advantage of other insurance options during the fall benefits enrollment period.”

“We are urging state employees to look at their spouse or partner’s plan come open enrollment.”

The SHP plans to phase the rate changes in over a two-year period. First-year rates are projected to produce $196 million in savings, and year-two rates to bring an additional $62 million.

The SHP is the largest buyer of medical and pharmaceutical services in North Carolina, spending $3.2 billion in 2017.

Folwell’s proposal would allow the SHP to begin paying about 61,000 providers based on a percentage above current Medicare rates, along with an additional and adjustable profit margin estimated at 82%.

Folwell said the SHP will provide increased reimbursement payments to most independent primary-care physicians, behavioral-health specialists and many rural hospitals.

Cone claimed it would have $26 million in potential lost reimbursement.

By comparison, Cone reported Nov. 28 that net patient revenue was up 7.7% to $1.78 billion for fiscal 2018, which ended Sept. 30. It reported $110.4 million in “excess revenue,” which is akin to profit for a for-profit organization.

Medicare and Medicaid represented 48% of Cone’s reimbursement and source of payments in fiscal 2018, while commercial and managed care was 46.3% and self-pay was 1.5%.

Cone said that “if we accept this contract, other payers may push for similar terms.”

Opposition to proposal

If the typical contract negotiations between private health insurers and hospitals are any indication, the out-of-network status could linger for weeks or months before an agreement is reached.

Contract disputes between private health insurers and hospitals have often gotten heated, including filing lawsuits, as part of negotiating strategies.

“It looks increasingly as if (the hospitals and providers) will need to sign on to his plan or challenge it in court — if they believe they can make a case,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.

Cone cited sentiments similar to the N.C. Healthcare Association in saying that Folwell “has turned a deaf ear on our repeated pleas to work collaboratively to switch state employees to a plan where clear and sustained cost savings are achieved, not simply a reduction in prices.”

“We urge state employees to voice their objection to the Clear Pricing Project’s lack of hospital coverage by contacting their lawmakers,” Cone said.

Folwell said UNC Health Care’s counter-proposal to Cooper and GOP legislative leaders is meant “to distract from (its) recent dark money scandal.”

In recent months, there were local radio advertisements placed by the Cary-based nonprofit Partners for Innovation in Health Care, associated with the NCHA, that urges consumers to voice their opposition to Folwell’s plan to legislators. The ads calls the plan a “risky scheme” several times in the spot.

Folwell claimed UNC Health Care helped pay for the campaign by Partners for Innovation in Healthcare.

UNC Health Care said that “in paying its NCHA dues, UNC Hospitals inadvertently paid an assessment that was included on the invoice. This was an administrative oversight and has been rectified.”

“NCHA confirms it did not use UNC Hospitals funds for its 501©(4) organization and has since refunded that money.”


Crime
This scheme claimed $1.3 million in fraudulent tax refunds. A Winston-Salem woman is the fourth person to be sentenced.

GREENSBORO — A Winston-Salem woman convicted for her role in a tax-fraud scheme that resulted in a $1.3 million loss to the Internal Revenue Service will spend about two years in prison.

Claudia Lynette Shivers, 44, pleaded guilty in August 2018 to one count of conspiring to defraud the United States by filing false tax returns. Federal prosecutors said she conspired with several other people in the tax-fraud scheme and that she also trained people on how to manipulate information on tax returns to guarantee large tax refunds.

Shivers is the fourth person to be sentenced in the tax-fraud scheme in the past year, and federal prosecutors said in court Monday that they are planning to seek indictments on two additional people.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge William Osteen sentenced Shivers to one year and nine months in federal prison. She also has to pay $38,266 in restitution. Shivers must report to federal prison on Aug. 26, and when she gets out of prison, she will be on supervised release for three years. While on supervised release, she is prohibited from helping others to prepare taxes.

According to court documents, the tax-fraud scheme operated partly out of Fast Tax of Winston-Salem on Liberty Street. Shivers and two other people also owned Quick Taxes, LLC in Greensboro.

Prosecutors alleged that Shivers and three other people — S. Wayne Patterson, Kristyn Dion Daney and Rakeem Lenell Scales — prepared 519 false tax returns for Fast Tax and Quick Taxes that claimed $1.3 million in tax refunds.

Patterson, past president of the Winston-Salem NAACP who was a former magistrate and former lawyer, pleaded guilty to his role and was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison. Daney was sentenced to about nine months in prison. That sentence began on Saturday. Scales was placed on three years of probation. Patterson, Daney and Scales were each ordered to pay restitution of various amounts.

Two images of Shivers emerged Monday during a hearing in U.S. District Court that lasted nearly two hours. One image, provided by federal prosecutors, was of a woman compelled by greed to start several tax-preparation businesses in Winston-Salem and elsewhere and to lead a tax-fraud scheme that targeted poor people, often single mothers.

But her friends and relatives called to testify gave a different picture. They described a woman who raised five children on her own, one of whom serves in the U.S. Navy, and who has worked to be an asset to her community by volunteering for various organizations such as the Winston-Salem Urban League Young Professionals.

Her father, Lawrence Shivers Sr., said her daughter is the primary caretaker of both him and her grandfather. She makes sure that he and her grandfather get the medication they need, he said.

“She is an asset in whatever community she is in,” he said in court. “She’s raised five children by herself without any assistance.”

Shivers also has run for political office, unsuccessfully challenging Vivian Burke in 2009 for her council seat.

Osteen struggled to square that portrait of Shivers with the crime she has admitted to committing — tax fraud. He said he had no doubt that Shivers was a good person who had done extraordinary things in her community.

“Also extraordinary is a $1.3 million tax-fraud scheme that Ms. Shivers instigated,” through training, he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Castaldi told Osteen that even after a search warrant was executed on one of Shivers’ tax-preparation businesses, she continued to prepare and file fraudulent tax returns and helped open another tax-preparation business.

Castaldi argued that what Shivers did was premeditated — she opened her tax-preparation businesses, recruited customers and trained employees on how to file fraudulent tax returns. And the whole time, she said, Shivers knew what she was doing was wrong.

Shivers’ attorney, Micah Huggins, said, however, that there’s no evidence Shivers became rich from the tax-fraud scheme, and Shivers has learned her lesson.

Castaldi disputed that. She said that tax-preparation businesses charged $225,000 in fees. Those fees were divided among the partners, and Shivers’ share was about $40,000, she said in court.

Shivers said in court that she has learned a lot through the process, and if she had the chance to do it over again, she would never have started a tax-preparation business to begin with.

“It’s been a year since this whole process started,” she said. “Today, I maturely accept whatever (punishment) you give.”