New VA Secretary to Visit Duke School of Medicine

DURHAM—The new Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, will visit the Duke School of medicine Friday morning.

McDonald was just appointed to the position late last month

He is launching a recruiting initiative aimed at bringing the best and brightest health professionals to VA hospitals.

Earlier this summer, a national audit revealed that the VA hospital in Durham and in Fayetteville has some of the worst wait times in the country for patient care.

McDonald’s visit comes on the heels of his trip to Charlotte this week with the President Obama for the American Legion National Convention.

While he was there, Secretary McDonald told the crowd that this is a critical time for the VA, and there’s a lot of work to be done to resolve challenges such as lengthy wait times and falsified appointment records.

McDonald said the agency needs to refer more patients to private doctors, and needs to hire more doctors, nurses and clerks specifically for the VA.

He also promised the VA will get past the “present difficulties.”

- Linnie Supall

Voters Decide if Defendants Can Choose Between a Judge or Jury

RALEIGH– This November voters will get the chance to make a significant change to the state’s constitution. The ballot will ask voters to decide whether a person charged with a criminal offense should be able to wave their right to a jury trial and have the judge determine his or her guilt or innocence. This would not apply to cases where the defendant faces the death penalty.

Two longtime defense attorneys have very different opinions on the issue.

“Having that extra option overall is going to be good for a criminal defendant,” said Hart Miles, a defense attorney of 17 years.

Miles believes it may be easier for a judge to understand cases that involve complex issues.

“If the right answer is more likely with the judge, you want to pick the judge. If it’s too complex for the jury, it just makes sense to let the judge decide it,” Miles said.

Considering North Carolina elects its judges, defense attorney Karl Knudsen said judges could treat defendants unfairly to appease voters.

“There would be a lot of political pressure on our judges to be tough on crime and being hard on individuals,” said Knudsen, who has been a defense attorney for 27 years.

According to a recent UNC School of Government report, nationally the average conviction rate between 1989 and 2002 for federal criminal defendants was 84 percent in jury trials compared to 55 percent in bench trials.

However, Knudsen says things could be different in North Carolina where district attorney offices set the trial calendar and decide what cases get called and which judges will hear them.

“This would be used as a club over defendants to say, ‘Hey, we’ll let you have a bench trial pretty quickly, but if you want a jury trial, we’ll just put it on the back burner, and you’ll sit in jail for months or potentially years,’” said Knudsen.

If this amendment passes, North Carolina would be the last state in the country to give defendants the right to choose judge or jury.

If the amendment is approved by voters, it would take effect this December.

- Julie Fertig

Capital Tonight Aug. 28: NC’s Most Influential Lobbyists

On Capital Tonight: A new report lists the state’s most effective lobbyists — and many of them are former legislators. We talk with Paige Worsham of the NC Center for Public Policy Research. And we continue our conversation with the state’s mayors. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Concord Mayor Scott Padgett join Tim Boyum. Watch the program here.

Raleigh City Council Holds Meeting Over Purchase of Dix Property

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said the city is close to reaching an agreement with the state to buy the former Dorothea Dix property.

The City Council had a special meeting Thursday morning about the land.

Raleigh made a $45 million offer in July for the entire property. The state countered by offering 244 acres for $44 million.

Mayor McFarlane said they prefer to buy the whole property, and will continue to talk with the state without worrying about an expiration date. No details about the proposal were released to the public.

“It’s always been our preference to purchase all the property. When you look at it and talk about starting to break it up, no matter which part you take out you start to take out some of the value. I can’t imagine what part of it I would want to give up. Our goal is still to purchase all of it,” said McFarlane.

She said acquiring the property and preserving the land as a park would have an impact on the city and state for generations, and compared it to New York City’s Central Park.

“I don’t know of another city in the country that has this kind of opportunity with 306 acres near their downtown. We have so much support from the business community and private individuals who really understand what this would mean for us and we’re going to get it done. It’s just that valuable,” said McFarlane.

The site was once home to the Dorothea Dix Mental Hospital, but that was closed in 2012.

- Linnie Supall

Capital Tonight Aug. 27: School vouchers case

On Capital Tonight: The school vouchers case is heading to the NC Supreme Court. We talk with Darrell Allison with Parents for Education Freedom NC and Natalie Beyer of Public Schools First about what happens next. Our Advocates Bob Orr and Rob Schofield take on other legal issues before the state’s courts. Watch the program here.

Same Sex Couples Make a Statewide Push for Marriage Equality

RALEIGH– Dozens of same sex couples delivered petitions with more than 10,000 signatures to Gov. Pat McCrory’s offices in Raleigh, Charlotte and Fletcher on Wednesday calling for him to stop supporting Amendment 1.

“There’s really no reason to fight this anymore,” said Graham Dixon, a Raleigh father seeking marriage equality.

Dixon and his husband represent two of the signatures inside the boxes full of thousands of petitions.

“We’re just interested in having the proper legal rights for our family to protect our little girl,” Dixon said.

The fathers joined other same sex couples in marching the signatures into the governor’s office at the state Capitol.

Attorney General Roy Cooper said he will no longer defend North Carolina’s ban in federal court, and they want the governor to follow suit.

“It’s just the inevitable at this point. Really you probably fight until you cant win and it’s that point,” said Dixon. “There’s no reason to waste anymore taxpayer money on this.”

“Our straight allies across the state and likely across the country signed this petition. So it’s a broad base of support we have on this,” said Chris Sgro, Equality NC director at the Charlotte event.

The 4th circuit Court of Appeals struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“It’s not going to surprise us either when North Carolina does come around, it’s just a matter of how long it takes,” said Dixon.

Virginia’s ruling could have implications for North Carolina because they are in the same circuit.

“All of history has shown the best environment for raising children is with their married father or mother. So changing the definition of marriage would deny many children of either their father or mother,” said Jere Royall, NC Family Policy Council.

Time Warner Cable News reached out to the governor’s office and his spokesman said his feelings have not changed since the Court of Appeals ruling.

“This issue will ultimately be decided by the United States Supreme Court. As of now, North Carolina’s marriage amendment remains in full force and effect. To ensure that our laws remain in effect until the final Supreme Court ruling, we call on the attorney general to request a stay in North Carolina’s pending cases,” said Ryan Tronovitch, deputy communications director.


Federal Funds Create Improvements at VA Centers in NC

DURHAM– Months after problems of delayed wait times causing inadequate care at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers came to light in the spring, federal officials now report major improvements have been made at North Carolina’s four VA medical centers and 15 associated clinics.

Officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs said thousands of more veterans now have appointments, patients wait times have been reduced and VA facilities can accommodate more patients.

“We can’t say there’s any improvements when we actually haven’t experienced it that much in person,” said Army Veteran David Smoak of Sanford. “But I would say the bright side from my experience is that when you actually do get seen, do get treated it’s great.”

Smoak said enrolling his wife to actually receive health care at the Durham VA took several months.

“[It took months] between sending the enrollment, them losing the form and then things started rolling along,” said Smoak.

On the ground level patients and their families have mixed reactions about whether they’ve seen any improvements.

“They got to him quickly. There wasn’t a wait. Everyone’s been great here,” said Jim Bottomly, who has not experienced any issues since taking his father to the Durham VA for surgery two weeks ago. “It’s been a real positive experience.”

Since May, officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs said more than $26 million from the Accelerated Care Initiative has been used to provide 14,000 additional North Carolina veterans 57,000 more appointments, which will take place before Oct. 1.

The funding extended facility hours and also created more space, providers and equipment.

“And we’re doing better outreach so no veteran will ever be in their community and wonder what or where do they turn to get help,” said Ilario Pantano, assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Pantano said state workers are now on the ground at three VA medical centers to assist in any way possible.

“Not just the narrow medical services they’re seeking, but questions about benefits and veterans services more broadly all taken care of in one location. So that’s a real win for veterans in North Carolina,” said Pantano.

Veterans haven’t seen changes yet believe fixing all the problems will take time.

“Cause you could have the best care in the world but if it’s not timely, that’s not adequate too,” said Smoak.

Veterans with appointments scheduled more than 60 days from their original appointment date are being called and asked if they prefer to keep their VA appointment or get a referral for community care. Federal officials said in Durham alone, 3,400 calls have been made and more than 90 percent of veterans chose to keep their VA appointment.

- Julie Fertig

President Obama: ‘We’re Creating New Culture of Accountability At the VA’

CHARLOTTE — President Barack Obama addressed the 96th annual convention of the American Legion in Charlotte on Tuesday.

He used this platform to announce a number of new measures to help veterans with healthcare, housing, education and jobs. These executive orders come on the heels of a months-long scandal with the VA concerning delays with veterans receiving the care they need and deserve.

President Obama was met with welcoming applause at the Charlotte Convention Center but got right to the issues on everyone’s minds. He acknowledged the “inexcusable delays” that ultimately led to scores of veterans losing their lives waiting for care.

The administration’s plans include:
Ramping up a recruiting campaign to fill doctor and nurse shortages at VA hospitals.

Automatic enrollment in VA treatment programs for all military personnel already receiving mental health care.

A partnership with a number of national banks, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America, to help vets get lower mortgage rates.

An initiative to better understand post traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries that includes a $30 million nationwide suicide prevention study.

Obama said he hopes these steps will ensure the problems currently plauging the VA never happen again.

This evening, we will hear from veterans at the convention on what they think about the president’s speech and plans to fix the VA.

- Becky Bereiter

President Obama Arrives in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE—The president of the United States is now in Charlotte.

Air Force One landed at the NC Air National Guard base at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport shortly after 11 a.m.

President Barack Obama will now head to uptown Charlotte where he will speak to thousands of veterans attending the American Legion’s annual national convention.

There is no information on what exactly the president will say, but this speech follows the recent scandal involving delays with veterans receiving care through the VA.

Police said drivers should expect roads to be blocked in the area around the airport and uptown as the President makes his way to and from the convention center for the speech.

Authorities say they will also have to re-route pedestrian traffic around the convention center.

One of the people who will get to meet the president during his visit is a Monroe veteran who has been working for years to help fellow veterans.

Garland Denny, 82, asked the government to create postage stamps and bonds to raise money for those who have served their country.

Denny went to Washington in June to meet with members of the Obama administration.

Rep. Robert Pittenger’s office said Denny will be on the front row at the convention center for the speech and will also get a chance to shake the president’s hand.

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Speech by Medal of Honor Recipient Begins Presidential Event

CHARLOTTE—One of the first speakers of the day at the convention was Kyle White, a Charlotte resident and recent Medal of honor Recipient, who addressed the crowd on the importance of giving back.

President Obama gave the retired Army Sergeant one of the nation’s highest military honors in May for his heroism during a four hour fight while he was deployed in Afghanistan.

White told the crowd that their service does not end when the uniform comes off.

He said he has chosen to dedicate his life to reducing the stigma surrounding post traumatic stress disorder.. his goal is to encourage veterans to seek help for their mental health… but white told veterans there are plenty of different ways to give back.

“Whether your service is working with blood donor programs, volunteering to cleanup the aftermath of natural disasters, working with the USO and Special Olympics, working on adult mentor programs, building houses with habitat for Humanity, or standing in front of people to say it is OK for service members to say they need help. Service is what defines us,” said White.

Sergeant White also handed out several service awards at the event.