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Sheriff asks for PEIA switch approval

HUNTINGTON — Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle is asking county commissioners to switch the county's self-insured health coverage to PEIA, the state's public employees health plan.

Switching from Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield to the PEIA Health Plan would save an estimated $3.7 million a year, Zerkle said, which could be passed on to employees for raises.

However, Zerkle's request comes amid a proposal made by the CFO of St. Mary's Medical Center, who is working with a group of health care professionals to negotiate lower costs with Highmark.

Commissioners agreed to hold off on making any decisions until Thursday's regular meeting at the earliest, when the CFO is expected to give a presentation about how her group would go about negotiating with Highmark.

During a May 23 commission meeting, commissioners were set to vote on switching the county's health insurance coverage from Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield to the PEIA Health Plan. Pete Thackston, senior vice president of USI Insurance Services, was set to give a presentation on the cost benefits of switching to the PEIA coverage.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, and before Thackston's presentation, St. Mary's Medical Center CFO Angie Swearingen addressed the commissioners and asked them to hold off on making any changes until she could come up with a proposal to give to them.

Thackston's presentation was then moved to the next meeting to allow Swearingen to prepare her presentation.

Swearingen said she is in charge of managed care for Mountain Health Network's Cabell Huntington Hospital and St. Mary's Medical Center. The two hospitals joined Huntington Internal Medicine Group and Marshall Health to form an Accountable Care Organization (ACO). An ACO is a group of health care providers that come together voluntarily to coordinate care for the patients they serve.

She said if the county will agree to work with the ACO, they would work to negotiate lower health care costs between the county and Highmark.

During a May 30 special meeting, Zerkle asked commissioners not to work with the ACO and instead make the switch to PEIA insurance, which he said would ultimately save the county money in the long term. Even though PEIA insurance comes with a slightly higher deductible and more out-of-pocket costs, Zerkle said it's beneficial because PEIA comes at a fixed cost for the county.

For years the commission has grappled with the rising costs of health care and an overall dwindling of revenue. Commissioners have expressed frustrations with trying to budget for the self-insured health plan and costs that are prone to fluctuate from year to year.

Money saved in switching to PEIA could be passed on to the departments of the county's elected officials, which have been operating under a 10% budget cut for the past three years, Zerkle said.

"We could give county employees pay raises. They haven't had one in a long time, but their electric bills, water bills and phone bills have all gone up," Zerkle said. "I am getting behind further and further with my deputies. The counties around me are paying $2,000 to $3,000 more, so why wouldn't they just drive to the next county and go there and work?"

Swearingen said the ACO has the ability through Medicare to help manage costs with Highmark. Highmark is a third-party administrator that both St. Mary's and Cabell Huntington use to manage their cost of care, she said.

If commissioners agree to work with the ACO, the county would be the ACO's first client.

Commissioner Jim Morgan said he was nervous about becoming the guinea pig for the program. He is in favor of switching to PEIA and voted against a motion to delay Thackston's presentation. He feared any further delays in moving to PEIA would hinder any potential cost-savings from making the switch.

Commissioner Kelli Sobonya said she is in favor of switching to PEIA because the costs of maintaining the county's self-insured plan is creating a financial hardship. This is compounded by increasing costs of the county's jail bill, she said.

She said she understands why some county employees would want to keep their current plans, which cost employees approximately $70 a month.

"My question is, we know we are broke, but what are we going to do about it and what is our plan to do something about it?" she said. "These are going to be hard decisions."

Commission President Nancy Cartmill said she's been approached by multiple entities, not just the ACO, with proposals to work on lowering the county's health insurance costs. She told Zerkle she wanted to hold off on making any decisions until she listened to what members of the ACO have to say.

"All we are doing is giving them the opportunity to speak," Cartmill said.

According to the cost-saving memo provided by Thackston, the county spends approximately $607,000 a month for employee and family plans with Highmark. The county would spend approximately $263,000 a month if it switched to PEIA's family and employee plans.

Swearingen did not respond to emailed questions by deadline Friday.

Reporter Fred Pace contributed to this report.

Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

Heritage celebrated during Old Central City Days festival

HUNTINGTON — While Old Central City's unique personality is visible all year, it gets the chance to shine once a year during the Old Central City Days celebration, which gives residents a chance to celebrate its attested culture and heritage. The annual event celebrates the history of Central City as a manufacturing and business town.

Although it has changed over time, Old Central City still thrives as the "Antique Capital of the Tri-State." Today it offers a range of shops selling antique furniture, glassware, vintage clothing, lamps, records and more.

Music from its gazebo filled the streets along West 14th Street as Huntington residents celebrated the history of the West Huntington community via shopping its unique wares and learning about the hidden diamond's history.

The event offered special activities and sales. Cicada Books and Coffee and The Wild Ramp offered activities for kids, while Village Renew-All offered plants for sale, alongside arts and antique booths. Alias 14W also offered interactive art and student art exhibitions. Attendees got to see history via a carriage from Heiner's Bakery, which established itself in the community in 1905.

It was highlighted by Wayne County country musician Brock Thompson and Hannah Spurlock of The Dividends.

Longtime residents mingled among the youth, blending into a diverse crowd that enjoyed the wares the festival had to offer. Patrons exited one shop just to enter the next, looking through antique pieces and wares, all having a story.

Beth Allen, of Huntington, has never really spent time in Central City, but said the event gave her a chance to explore a part of Huntington she had never known.

"We just came from the (Cicada Books and Coffee) store. Who would have thought Huntington would have such a quaint little place?" she said. "It feels like home. You've got the music, the food, the atmosphere, all celebrating this history that made Huntington what it is."

Tabatha Franklin, of Ceredo, enjoyed an old-fashioned lemonade as she browsed antique items while rain lightly drizzled in the middle of West 14th Street.

"I don't even have a lot of money to purchase anything," she said. "But just being here and seeing and touching this stuff really reminds me of my grandpa and stories he always told us about growing up around here."

Central City Days will continue Sunday, June 9, beginning at 10 a.m. with the same events and some new musical acts.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

Archbishop didn't tell whole story on WV bishop

CHARLESTON — The archbishop appointed to investigate the former leader of the Roman Catholic Church in West Virginia says he should not have redacted from his report to the Vatican the names of clergy, including himself, who received a portion of $350,000 in cash gifts from Bishop Michael Bransfield.

Archbishop William Lori oversaw a probe of alleged sexual and financial misconduct by Bransfield, who has denied wrongdoing.

His team's confidential findings in February prompted Bransfield's ouster from ministry.

What Lori didn't say in his final report to the Vatican in March is that he himself is among the high-ranking clergy who accepted these cash gifts.

The Washington Post reported that the before and after versions of the still-secret report to the Vatican show names of Lori and others removed.

With the Post asking questions, Lori revealed some details of the report in a letter Wednesday and followed up Friday with a video saying redacting the names was a mistake.

"If I had to do it over again, especially at a time when we are trying to create greater transparency and accountability, the report would have included the names of those bishops who received gifts, including my own," Lori said in the video.

Lori and other clergy told the Post that they thought the gifts from Bransfield came from his personal funds — and that they had no idea he was getting reimbursed for each check with church money. Lori said he returned the $7,500 Bransfield gave him over the years, and asked the diocese to donate it to Catholic Charities.

"Investigators found no evidence to suggest that there was any expectation of reciprocity in return for financial gifts from Bishop Bransfield," Lori added.

Lori's letter and video broadly outline the findings of the investigation, but The Washington Post's report is far more detailed. It says the report concluded that in the 13 years Bransfield was bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston diocese, he spent $2.4 million in church money on travel, much of it personal, including chartered jet flights and luxury hotel stays.

It also found that Bransfield and several subordinates spent an average of nearly $1,000 a month on alcohol, and that the diocese spent $4.6 million to renovate Bransfield's church residence after a fire damaged a single bathroom.

Lori said in his video that the allegations of sexual misconduct by Bransfield with young adult men in subordinate positions were credible.

According to the Post, the report cites nine men who accused Bransfield of touching or groping them, kissing or exposing himself to them or commenting on their bodies. Bransfield abused alcohol, oxycodone and other prescription drugs, which "likely contributed to his harassing and abusive behavior," according to the report as quoted in Post.

The men have alleged that their complaints were falling on deaf ears within the church hierarchy, at a time when the Post reported that Bransfield was sending checks to a total of 137 clergymen, including two young priests he is accused of mistreating, and more than a dozen cardinals.

Some of the clergy, like Lori, have pledged to return the money in the wake of the investigation, the Post reported.

The Post also reported that church records show the West Virginia diocese reimbursed Bransfield by boosting his compensation to cover the value of the gifts, which raises legal questions. As a tax-exempt nonprofit, the diocese must use its money only for charitable purposes.

The Post said Bransfield briefly responded to its interview request, saying the allegations are aimed at destroying his reputation and that none of them are true.

The West Virginia diocese is one of the nation's smallest, and is unusually well-funded. According to the newspaper, it gets nearly $15 million a year in oil profits from land in Texas donated to it more than a century ago.

Tricon draws comic enthusiasts to Huntington

HUNTINGTON — A slew of comic enthusiasts and otherwise nerdy folks descended on downtown Huntington to take in a sampling of the best of geek culture Saturday at the Tri-State Comic Convention, or Tricon, at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena.

The convention was created by local comic creators James Maddox and Eric Watkins in 2011.

"It turns out in Huntington, Charleston and in our region, there's a lot of fun, creative people that want to express their excitement, and we've given them that kind of venue to do that," Maddox said.

Though the event is comic-centric, mostly due to the creators being comic creators themselves, Maddox said they incorporate all kinds of other things nerds love, like wrestling, video games, movies and television shows. Special guests included WWE Superstar Ryback and various comic artists, including Tommy Patterson, whose work includes cover art for "Game of Thrones" graphic novels and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Maddox said Tricon is where a lot of local artists and exhibitors get their start before moving on to bigger conventions.

"To know this is where they broke into the business is a point of pride for me," Maddox said. "I think that the fact that we're able to give people a platform to do the thing they might not do if we weren't here — that makes me happy."

Tricon concluded Saturday evening with an auction to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which protects

freedom of speech and copyright for comic creators, and a costume contest.

The Charley Quinn costume, accompanied by Ms. Joker — a gender-bent take on the classic Batman villainous duo — won in the under 10 age group. The Camden Park Employee costume won in the "Fallout 76" category, which was added this year as a tribute to the video game based in West Virginia that was released in November 2018.

Best in Show went to a pair dressed as Spartans from the "Halo" video game series, and the Promoter's Pick award went to a couple dressed as Bonnie and Clyde.

Best female costume went to Ashley Davis' Hellgirl concept, another gender-bent take on a popular comic character. The Best Male costume was awarded to Jalen Walker and his take on HIM, an enemy of the Powerpuff Girls.

Walker, 18, of Huntington, said this is only his third time cosplaying, and it is his best costume yet. He said he loves all kinds of villains from television and comics, and he chose HIM as his costume because he hadn't seen it widely done.

Walker, who does theater, said he loves to perform, which is what makes cosplaying so much fun, and seeing other people's costumes is what makes conventions worthwhile.

"I like to see all their inspirations — all their costumes are gorgeous, and I would recommend anyone come by just to see all the costumes," Walker said.

Follow reporter Megan Osborne on Twitter and Facebook @megosborneHD.


For more photos from this event, go to