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Local woman's path to medical school began at FTCC

01 03 Amanda Parra 1Amanda Parra dreamed of becoming a physician but figured it was an idea that was well beyond reach.

She was a married stepmom of two teenagers. She had no experience working in healthcare. And she suspected the education she’d need would be too expensive.

So Parra explored healthcare careers that seemed affordable and attainable, as well as professionally satisfying, and she enrolled in the radiography program at Fayetteville Technical Community College.

At FTCC, she earned an associate degree in radiography that helped her land a good job. She also gained the confidence to act on her dream of medical school.

Parra remembers the moment she started believing in her dream. She was chatting with Anita McKnight, the chair of FTCC’s radiography program.

“I said, ‘It popped into my head that I want to go to medical school,’” Parra recalled.

She waited for McKnight to look doubtful. Instead, the instructor smiled. “Yes,” she told Parra, “that’s possible.”

And Parra suddenly believed that it was.

“That was kind of the catalyst that helped me get to where I am now,” said Parra, who’s in her second year at Ross University School of Medicine. She hopes to specialize in emergency medicine. “That would dovetail with my X-ray experience,” she said.

Parra, who is 32, worked at various jobs in retail and banking early on but was bored by them. When her husband was reassigned to Fort Bragg, she decided she wanted to work in healthcare. “I was, ‘I want to do better,’” she said. “‘I want to help people.’”

She researched educational options and liked what she learned about FTCC’s health programs – “they had a good reputation, it was all accredited” – and the cost fit her budget.

Med school was not on her radar then. “I thought that was for rich kids and kids who are 24 or 25 whose parents can pay for stuff,” she said. “Not for me as a married stepmom.”

Parra loved FTCC’s radiography program. She said the faculty set high standards and demanded excellence but were also helpful and encouraging.

“They were just always so supportive,” she said. “They were always so warm and welcoming. It’s not the coddling kind of warmth. They’re always very honest.”

After graduating from FTCC in 2017, Parra worked full-time as a radiologic technologist at Moore Regional Hospital. At the same time, she also took a full load of classes at Campbell University. With full credit for her associate degree from FTCC, she earned her bachelor’s degree in health science in just over a year’s time. She then started applying to medical schools.

Parra started at Ross University School of Medicine in January of 2020 but had to take all of her first-year courses online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, the school, which is located on the Caribbean island of Barbados, is open for face-to-face instruction. Parra flew there last month, but had to start her classes online while she waited out a required two-week quarantine.

Still, she was excited to be there – for the education, not the tropical paradise. Via a Zoom call, she said she expects to see some of Barbados in coming months. But she said most of her waking hours will be spent in class or studying.

“You have to set your standards,” she said. “Do I want to get Cs or do I want to get As?”

Parra wants As. She wants to become an excellent physician.

While at school, Parra is separated from her family. Her stepsons serve in the Navy now – a source of pride – so they’re no longer at home, needing her day-to-day attention. But her husband is still stationed at Fort Bragg and the couple miss each other. But, Parra said, the separation won’t be forever. “He’s been a huge supportive factor,” she said.

Meanwhile, throughout the years, she has remained in touch with McKnight and Michelle Walden, FTCC’s Dean of Health Technologies and she expects to continue to do so.

“I see them as my mentors and my friends,” Parra said. “I never in a million years would be here pursuing a medical career without them and all of the lovely professors and teachers at FTCC. I wouldn’t be here at all without FTCC.”

N.C. cities pass nondiscrimination ordinances without bathroom policies

13 nc flagFive years after House Bill 2 put North Carolina at the center of national controversy, cities in the state’s liberal enclaves are once again discussing discrimination and the LGBT community.

Six cities and counties in North Carolina have passed ordinances that designate sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, and LGBT advocates are now pushing two dozen more to follow suit.

But the new ordinances studiously avoid the flashpoint of 2016 — bathroom policy for transgender people. Both LGBT advocates and the General Assembly appear hesitant to wade back in to that debate.

The six new ordinances are nearly identical and largely symbolic. They prohibit businesses from denying services or employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as well as federally protected classes like race, religion, sex and disability. Several also include prohibitions against discrimination based on hairstyles “commonly associated with race or national origin.”

Under most of the new ordinances, violators can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined $500 per day. These moves renew a debate that began in 2016, when the city of Charlotte passed a sweeping nondiscrimination ordinance that protected gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. More controversially, Charlotte’s ordinance also allowed people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify, a measure aimed at making transgender people more comfortable.

Opponents feared that people would abuse the ordinance to illicitly use women’s bathrooms and changing facilities. Legal experts also said Charlotte’s ordinance essentially outlawed separate men’s and women’s restrooms.

In response, the General Assembly passed and then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2, a measure that undid Charlotte’s ordinance and required people to use the bathroom of their biological sex in public buildings. The law touched off a national firestorm. The NBA moved its All-Star Game planned for Charlotte out of state, businesses canceled expansions and entertainers canceled performances as a form of protest.

Gov. Roy Cooper campaigned for office on repealing H.B. 2, and did so in March 2017.

The repeal bill included a provision that cities could not pass nondiscrimination ordinances, a provision with a sunset in December 2020.

Hillsborough became the first N.C. city to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance since the sunset, on Jan. 11. Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Durham, Greensboro, and Orange County quickly followed suit.

Mecklenburg County has passed a resolution professing support for the LGBT community but has not yet considered an ordinance.

Organizations like the N.C. Family Policy Council and the N.C. Values Coalition have lined up against the new ordinances, saying they violate women’s privacy and could harm religious institutions and faith-based businesses. For example, churches or mosques would not be able to take sexual orientation or gender identity into account when hiring even if their religious doctrine spoke to the matter.

General Assembly leaders have been relatively quiet on the new ordinances but have indicated they will not act unless these potential problems become widespread.

A spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, declined to comment. In an interview with Spectrum News, Berger said that any next steps would come from private legal actions if small business owners felt their religious liberty in jeopardy — not a new law.

“The courts are probably the appropriate forum for us to look at,” he said.

State auditor finds a bevy of unlicensed providers receive Medicaid funds

10 patient formAn audit released by State Auditor Beth Wood’s office Feb. 18, found the state Department of Health and Human Services did a poor job of gatekeeping the Medicaid Provider Enrollment process.

The auditor’s office says HHS didn’t properly ensure that only qualified providers were approved to provide services to Medicaid beneficiaries and to get payments from the state’s Medicaid program. HHS didn’t identify those providers who had professional licenses suspended or terminated so they could remove them from the program, the audit said.

Furthermore, the audit found that HHS didn’t ensure its contractor General Dynamics Information Technology verified all professional credentials and provider ownership information during the enrollment re-verification process. Auditors sampled 191 approved applications and found that 185 of them never had their professional credentials verified.

“The Department of Health and Human Services does not check any credentials during this reverification process. None,” Wood said in a video accompanying the audit.

Examiners discovered that of 66 Medicaid providers disciplined by their licensing board in fiscal 2019, 26 had their license suspended or terminated. HHS only removed eight of the 26 from the Medicaid program.

The reasons for the suspended or terminated licenses ranged from substance abuse to sexual misconduct to a felony conviction related to health-care fraud.

These errors increased the risk that ill-equipped providers could receive millions of dollars in improper payments, the audit said. Such neglect is a big deal across the country: The Government Accountability Office reported that non-compliance with provider screening and enrollment requirements among the states contributed to more than a third of the $36.3 billion in estimated improper payments in 2018.

States are required to screen and enroll Medicaid providers in accordance with standards set by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to help combat waste, fraud, and abuse of the system. It’s also a matter of safety, as Wood’s office said that some providers on the Medicaid rolls lost their licenses due to patient deaths.

The audit said that unlicensed providers received $1.64 million in Medicaid payments in North Carolina during fiscal 2020. Providers lacking proper credentials got $11.2 in funds that year.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of HHS, said in a response included with the audit that she agrees with the findings, and the department has removed ineligible providers and is working to recoup improper payments.

“Ensuring that we enroll and maintain only qualified providers to care for the beneficiaries is a fundability responsibility of the Medicaid program,” she wrote. “I have directed our Medicaid program leadership to make the issues identified in the report a top priority.”

Unemployment benefits likely to be tied to job search again

12 jobs keyboardLegislation introduced by Republican lawmakers would mandate recipients of unemployment benefits actively search for work, a requirement that hasn’t been in place since the pandemic began in March.

Traditionally, unemployment benefits have been linked to a job-search requirement. But in a March 10 executive order, Gov. Roy Cooper waived that requirement due to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Now that the economy is improving and rates of infection, hospitalization, and death in North Carolina are steadily declining, lawmakers believe it’s time for the job-search requirement to make a comeback.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate peaked at 12.9% in April before declining to 6.2% by December, the most recent month for which data are available.

Due to the state’s improving employment situation, North Carolina no longer meets the federal government’s threshold for paying extended unemployment benefits up to 24 weeks after traditional unemployment benefits run out. Those extended benefits ended Feb. 20.

The bills introduced in the state House and Senate would only apply the work-search requirement to those who lost unemployment for non-COVID-related reasons.

The N.C. Division of Employment Security has the option of waiving the requirements, even without legislative authorization.

At a legislative meeting Feb. 17, DES assistant secretary Pryor Gibson signaled to lawmakers that his office would reintroduce the work requirement “within days, certainly within weeks.” That directive would apply to all recipients of unemployment benefits, not just those who lost work due for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.

“It makes sense for DES and legislators to reinstate job-search requirements for people who are unemployed for reasons unrelated to COVID-19,” said Joseph Coletti, senior fellow for fiscal studies with the John Locke Foundation.“Even people who lost their job because of the pandemic have found new jobs.

“As parts of the economy strengthen, businesses need to fill those roles. Since the governor waived the job-search requirement nearly a year ago, workers and businesses have learned how to take precautions to limit risk. This is a reasonable step in the process of restarting.”

All told, North Carolina has paid more than $10 billion in unemployment claims since the pandemic began in March.

State Board of Elections recommends delaying 2021 elections, 2022 primary

11 voting booths emptyWith new U.S. Census data not expected until September, the State Board of Elections is recommending moving all of this year’s municipal elections to 2022.

Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell also told the elections board Feb. 23 she recommends delaying the 2022 primary elections from March until May.

The changes would need to be passed by the General Assembly. Bell said she would present these recommendations to a House committee on Feb. 24.

Sixty-two municipalities, including North Carolina’s largest city of Charlotte, use districts or wards to elect council members. These districts are reapportioned every decade with data provided in the U.S. Census.

This data traditionally is finished by the end of March of the following year, and redistricting is completed by the summer. But the U.S. Census Bureau said results this year would be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers won’t be delivered to the states until Sept. 30.

This poses a problem for the 2021 municipal elections. Filing is currently set to begin in July. Holding elections under previous census data could pose constitutional and other legal issues for those 62 municipalities.

The delayed census results could also create a tight turnaround for the 2022 primary elections, which are scheduled for March. North Carolina could be in line for an additional seat in Congress due to population growth.

Once redistricting is complete, it takes about two months for the State Board of Elections to finish coding and preparing ballots for the new districts.

Thus, Bell recommended moving the primary to May. This election will include several high-profile contests, most notably the party primaries for the U.S. Senate. U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is expected to retire at the end of this term, making it an open seat.

The recommendations were met with little comment by the State Board of Elections members. One member said he was hesitant to endorse the changes.

“It causes me some heartburn to talk about making such a sweeping change,” board member Stacy Eggers said. Chairman Damon Circosta said he trusted the General Assembly would make the right decision.

Off-year elections tend to have significantly lower turnout than even-year federal election cycles. Moving municipal elections to 2022 could pose problems for Republicans in urban areas, which have trended Democratic in recent years.

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