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Land purchase for MU baseball stadium OK'd; groundbreaking is Saturday

HUNTINGTON — The Marshall University Board of Governors on Tuesday gave the final approval needed for the university to purchase land from the Huntington Municipal Development Authority to build a long-sought baseball stadium.

The board made the unanimous decision during a special meeting via conference call. Chairman James Bailes said the special meeting was necessary so the university could dedicate the land Saturday before Marshall’s homecoming football game.

In August, the university entered into a real estate purchase agreement with HMDA for the property along 5th Avenue where the new stadium will sit. The vote Tuesday finalized the purchase and permits MU President Jerome Gilbert to execute the necessary documents to complete the purchase.

The two parcels of land are along the 2300 and 2400 blocks of 5th Avenue. The total cost for the properties is $300,000, plus $168,000 to reimburse HMDA for an environmental consultant.

The funds were privately raised by the MU Athletic Department through the Herd Rises campaign.

The groundbreaking will be at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the site of the future stadium, the old Flint Group pigments property.

“Saturday will be another crucial step for the future of our baseball program,” said Mike Hamrick, Marshall’s director of athletics, in a press release. “I’m excited to get this very special project underway and encourage all of our loyal fans to step up and help us make this dream a reality.”

Construction on the facility is set to begin in the spring with the official opening scheduled for March 2021.

On hand to participate in the groundbreaking will be Thundering Herd alumni and Major League Baseball all-stars Jeff Montgomery and Rick Reed.

Also taking part in Saturday’s announcement will be Gilbert, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, Thundering Herd baseball head coach Jeff Waggoner, legendary former Marshall head coach Jack Cook and representatives from stadium architect AECOM.

Marshall football plays Western Kentucky University at 2:30 p.m. The university has promised a “historic” announcement during the first half of the homecoming game.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

Trump administration announces more health insurance choices, stable premiums

WASHINGTON — Consumers will have more health insurance choices next year under the much-debated Obama health care law and premiums will dip slightly for many, the Trump administration announced Tuesday.

The Department of Health and Human Services is touting a second consecutive year of positive-sounding numbers. An additional 20 insurers will participate for 2020, expanding consumer choice in many states, officials said. Nearly 70 percent of customers will have three or more insurers from which to pick a plan.

About 10 million people are covered through the health law’s insurance markets, which offer taxpayer-subsidized private plans for people who aren’t covered on the job. Former President Barack Obama’s namesake law will be 10 years old next year.

Premiums for a hypothetical 27-year-old choosing a standard plan will decline 4% on average in 2020 for states served by the federal HealthCare.gov website, the Trump administration said. About a dozen states run their own sign-up websites, but most rely on HealthCare.gov.

A low-cost midrange plan for that hypothetical 27-year-old will charge monthly premiums of $374 next year, officials said. The law’s income-based subsidies can drop that to around $50.

However, people who don’t qualify for income-based assistance must pay full price, and that’s before any deductibles and copays. Unsubsidized customers may just decide to go uninsured, particularly if they’re healthy.

A previous Republican Congress repealed the law’s unpopular penalty to get more people signed up — fines for going without coverage.

Six states will see premiums decline by 10% or more, officials said. They are Delaware, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Utah.

Three states — Indiana, Louisiana and New Jersey — will see premiums increase 10% or more.

President Donald Trump was elected on a promise to repeal “Obamacare.” But despite his repeated efforts the program has stabilized three years into his administration.

That may be short-lived. The administration is asking a federal appeals court in New Orleans to overturn the entire Affordable Care Act as unconstitutional, an overhang of uncertainty clouding its future.

But even as it pursues “Obamacare’s” demise in the courts, the Trump administration is taking credit for the program’s current stability.

“Until Congress gets around to replacing it, the president will do what he can to fix the problems created by this system for millions of Americans,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said. “The president who was supposedly trying to sabotage this law has been better at running it than the guy who wrote it.”

Independent experts credit the Trump administration for working with a dozen states to approve waivers that can bring down premiums by setting up a backstop system to pay bills from the costliest patients.

However, they also say the original design of the law’s subsidies is probably the major stabilizing force. People eligible for financial assistance are insulated from price spikes because they pay only a fixed percentage of their income. Because their own costs didn’t change much, customers with subsidies kept coming back to the market through years of double-digit increases in list-price premiums.

“As long as the subsidies are in place the changes that are happening ... are not going to push this market off a cliff,” Standard & Poor’s director and lead analyst Deep Banerjee said.

Experts say yet another factor is that insurers that have stuck with the program have learned over time how to operate profitably.

Although the program is stable, enrollment has been slowly eroding since Trump took office, from 12.2 million in 2017 to 11.4 million this year. The slippage has come mainly in the HealthCare.gov states, where the federal government runs sign-up season. Slashing the ad budget was one of the Trump administration’s early actions.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office has recommended that the administration follow standard federal practices by setting sign-up goals and actively managing the program to meet enrollment targets. Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the administration doesn’t believe such targets are needed and instead her agency has focused on keeping the HealthCare.gov website running smoothly and improving the enrollment experience for customers.

Verma also disclosed that the administration has made some “minor” changes in how it reports data about the program. While those tweaks appear to be in the weeds, they’re likely to get close attention from Democrats who accuse Trump of “sabotage” of the health law.

Sign-up season starts Nov. 1 in most states and runs through Dec. 15. States that run their own open enrollment may have different dates. Coverage starts Jan. 1.

The appeals court in New Orleans could issue its ruling during this time, but Azar said he’s not concerned even if the judges say the whole program should be tossed.

“Our messaging would be to keep calm and carry on,” he said, noting that the case is expected to go to the Supreme Court. “There will be no immediate disruption to anyone.”

Huntington-based judge convicted in Conn scheme dies in prison

LEXINGTON — A disbarred Huntington-based Social Security judge who was serving a federal sentence for his involvement in the Eric Conn scheme that stripped thousands of Kentuckians of their federal benefits died over the weekend while incarcerated.

David Daugherty, 83, who most recently lived in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, prior to his 2017 incarceration, was pronounced dead Saturday at a Lexington, Kentucky-area hospital after previously having been at Federal Medical Center in Lexington, a hospital for prison inmates requiring medical care, according to a public information officer for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Daugherty worked with disgraced attorney Eric Conn in approving at least 3,149 disability cases in exchange for at least $609,000 in bribes, which he was also ordered to repay at his sentencing. Daugherty, Conn and psychologist Alfred Bradley Adkins, both of Pikeville, Kentucky, had been under investigation for years after a Wall Street Journal article in 2011 pointed to possible fraud through an odd friendship between Conn and Daugherty.

Each man was sentenced to federal prison time for their actions.

In August 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Danny C. Reeves sentenced Daugherty to a four-year federal prison sentence and ordered him to repay more than $93.8 million in restitution to the government agencies he scammed after he pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving illegal gratuities. He was also ordered to serve a year of supervised release and to perform 200 hours of community service.

It is believed the United States gave more than $600 million in disability benefits in more than 3,000 Conn cases over an eight-year period from 2004 to 2011. Conn received more than $7 million in attorney fees during that time.

Conn pointed to Daugherty as the scheme’s creator, suggesting a $5,000 payment Conn made to Daugherty for a relative’s rehab treatment led to an agreement to pay for approved applications. After that, monthly $10,000 payments were made, pointing to the beginning of the scheme, Daugherty confirmed in his plea.

Conn admitted he would file disability applications with a satellite office in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, no matter where his client resided, in an effort to send the cases to the main office in Huntington where Daugherty would self-assign or direct others to assign cases to him.

Through the arrangement, Adkins, a clinical psychologist, performed medical evaluations for Conn from 2004-11, making clients appear eligible for benefits even though he had not evaluated them.

At one time, Daugherty was approving benefits at a 99.7% rate, while the average national odds of winning a disability appeal are about 60%.

Daugherty was suspended when the allegations surfaced and was allowed to retire. The West Virginia Bar Association stripped Daugherty of his law license in 2014, and he relocated to Myrtle Beach shortly thereafter.

Hundreds of Conn’s clients’ approved disability cases were deemed fraudulent in the years after his arrest and hundreds whose appeals did not go through are fighting to get their benefits back via a class-action lawsuit.

Daugherty was a graduate of Marshall University and the West Virginia University College of Law and was elected to represent Cabell County in the House of Delegates in 1968 and 1970. He also served as a Cabell Circuit judge from 1978 until 1984.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.