Tar Heel Tattler - April 2007

Backing Black pays off for chiropractors
- Edward Martin

Forget Bank of America. Never mind Microsoft. The investment Tar Heel chiropractors made in Jim Black makes blue chips look like cow chips. For a modest amount, they got a law that has returned millions of dollars in business.

After meetings with three chiropractors in restaurant bathrooms between 2002 and 2005, Black pocketed $29,000 — a figure the former speaker of the N.C. House’s lawyer disputes as too high — then championed a law lowering health-insurance co-payments for chiropractic visits. That’s on top of $11,000 in legal campaign contributions a watchdog group says he received from 2003 to 2006 from the chiropractors political action committee.

Black slipped the law into the state budget bill, and some legislators say they didn’t know they were voting on it. The year-old rule still rankles health insurers, which use tiered co-pays to nudge patients away from specialists. “Chiropractors wanted to be called specialists, so that’s how we treated them,” says Lew Borman, spokesman for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.

Now co-pays to visit chiropractors can be no higher than for primary-care physicians. Cumulative data is hard to come by, but in just the Blue Advantage plan, which covers less than 10% of Blue Cross’ 3.4 million Tar Heel customers, the law increased costs $8 million last year. From March, when it went into effect and most co-pays dropped from $40 to $20, through December, visits to chiropractors increased 25% over the year before. The extra expense, Borman says, could cause premiums to rise.

Chiropractors diagnose it differently. “It benefited the consumer, who previously had to pay exorbitant co-pays,” says Tom Schoenvogel, executive director of the Raleigh-based North Carolina Chiropractic Association. The law might not last. A bill to repeal it has been introduced in the Senate.

As a group, the state’s 1,400 chiropractors haven’t been implicated in wrongdoing, and the three who passed the cash — $25,000, plus a $4,000 check — in the loo cooperated with the investigation. The one whose stock plummeted is Black, who amid all the heat resigned from the legislature.

The Matthews Democrat faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to federal felony corruption charges in February. For him, it didn’t pay to diversify. The next week in state court, he agreed to be sentenced for bribery and obstruction of justice in an investment of his own: paying a Republican lawmaker to switch parties in 2003 and help him keep the speaker’s job.