New Law Oct. 1st: Freeze Your Credit For Free

Starting the 1st of the month, a new law will help you protect yourself from identity theft by allowing you to freeze your credit…for free.

This is part of a new law that also requires paid credit monitoring services to tell consumers how they can check their credit report for free, beefs up security breach reporting requirements, allows removal of personal financial information from local government websites, and protects crime victims from debts caused by criminals.

Please….do NOT fall for ‘paid credit report’ scams…they are all over the internet. You can request a copy of your report for free once per year from any of the three nationwide credit bureaus. Go to: www.annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.  Under North Carolina law, credit monitoring services are required to tell you how you can get credit reports for free.

 If your identity is stolen, your credit score is likely to go screwy as someone else spends on your dime (and name). To keep track of your credit during the year, request a free report from a different credit bureau every four months. (You will have to pay for additional copies)

If you need a security freeze…contact one of the bureau’s websites (have your social security number, address and date of birth info. on hand). Links to the credit bureaus’ websites are available at http://www.ncdoj.gov, along with detailed information about how to sign up for security freezes and how to lift one when you need to take out credit (also free). Consumers can lift their security freezes online for free as well.

If you dont have the internet (in which case…you wouldn’t be reading this right now….but YOU all can pass this on to those who DON’T)…and are over the age of 62 (sorry young internet-less folks!) request a freeze by mail or telephone for $3 per bureau.

Placing security freezes on your credit prevents an identity thief from opening new accounts or taking out credit cards and loans in your name. Once a security freeze is in place, the credit bureau won’t release information from your credit file until or unless you lift the freeze. The new law also makes North Carolina the first state in the nation to require credit monitoring services to tell consumers how they can get credit reports for free.

Nearly 1.7 million North Carolina consumers have had their personal information compromised due to 329 reported security breaches since 2005.

 

Thanks to Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office for sending this info. along….

Fire Tower…What’s Up? (Friday)

Take a tour through the current fire training tower behind Legion Stadium and Greenfield Lake…it doesn’t take long to see why even some of our bravest are probably less than thrilled to be running around in there. The building was built in 1959. Ironically, it was ALSO delayed in opening (I’m waiting to hear the entire story here…sounds like these construction problems are repeating through history!). The site is used by both county and city fire fighters for training drills and to test the equipment.

The space and location are two of the main reasons why the facility is inadequate. Athletes are training nearby on Legion Stadium and residential homes flank the sides of the property. When the hoses are spraying intense streams of water everywhere…there is simply no good place for the water to go.

In a real fire, you’d likely have multiple companies (fire stations) responding. Ideally, a facility needs the space for “multiple company evolutions.” That just can’t happen at the current location…but the new site has ample space.

The trucks also need to be tested for “drafting” (how efficiently they draw water from a source). Not every truck is guaranteed a hydrant in all responses and they sometimes have to draw from a pond or pool. The drafting tank at the current location is just a tank of water they stick the hose in to test it. If you’ve ever seen some of the new “towers” (i.e. BIG new fire trucks) we have…that small of a tank is not big enough for the gear. The newer towers are then continuously drawing and dumping water into that tank and it creates too much turbulence for testing.

The tower itself is just simply out of shape. Drive by it…its obvious. Windows on the inside have shattered, the staircase needs to be sandblasted of rust, the floors have deep cracks, hornets nests on the ceiling…the list goes on. Chief David Hines (WFD) said, “With a new facility on the horizon we just haven’t done stuff like replaced the windows and all…there was no reason to spend money.” Why funnel money into the old site if it was going to be retired soon? That was the idea years ago…but they’re still using that site. I asked him if they thought they would eventually have to spend money on repairs but there is optimism that the recent progress made at the new site will make that unnecessary.

Having a site where fighter’s can train in a real fire is obviously…important. The current building cannot withstand the repetitive heat. Because of that, fire departments are having to do “live burns” at areas throughout the county. The new facility was designed as a one-stop-shop…all the training facilities you could need…all in one place.

The new facility really is state-of-the-art. I toured that area as well…

The efflorescence on the side of the walls is a white salty substance that is common in construction. Its evidence that moisture is seeping into the concrete. Given the repetitive high volume of water that will be sprayed on those buildings…and natural moisture in the air…the electrical wiring inside is greatly compromised without the water repellent polymer. Contractor D.S. Simmons has agreed to replace the electrical fixtures and hinges that have already rusted. That should be done in the next 3-4 weeks (on their dime…).

After CFCC had their ribbon cutting ceremony last year (2008), the State Department of Construction came out to inspect the building. David Hardin told me they saw the efflorescence right away. An inspector took a hose and sprayed the wall…the water absorbed into the concrete.

I have a copy of that inspection report. I also have a copy of the specifications for that building which CLEARLY state that the water repellant polymer was required. I called the architect James Stumbo (Stewart Cooper Newell Architects) to find out how that polymer didn’t make it into the concrete mix. He told me to talk to David Hardin at CFCC….

Then I called Jody Wall at Johnson Concrete. They made it…surely they would know?! I was told to talk to the contractor, D.S. Simmons…no further comment.

Then I called D.S. Simmons…who agreed to an interview…and then told me to go talk to their lawyer.

I asked if D.S. Simmons was suing the concrete manufacturer….I’m only told that D.S. Simmons *currently* does not have a lawsuit pending against them.

 What I DO know about D.S. Simmons is that they have been testing external sealants on the mock walls to find out if a polymer applied to the outside of the bricks would perform the same function. They looked at four products, the results for Protectosil were announced yesterday and are the most promising. Protectosil will actually perform BETTER than if the polymer had been included in the original concrete.

 There’s a catch. Protectosil will have to be re-applied to the outside of the buildings every 7 years and the inside of the buildings every 2-3 years. THEY are paying. They will also seal the mortar which is great for the longevity of the building.

 CFCC’s Board approved the initiative to seek liquidated damages for the money lost in tuition and fees because of the facilities suspended use. I did not know until yesterday that that money would be shared with the city and county…I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to hear!

 11 million dollars of tax payer dollars is certainly not chunk change. CFCC respects this and David Harden says that they are working hard to get the facility on line but its important to take the time to fix this error completely so that no further delays or accessory expenses may occur.

 At CFCC’s Board meeting yesterday they approved the use of Protectisil and work should begin soon. You can be sure I’ll be following the progress…

 

 

 

 

 


“Denied”

When I expressed interest in trying to tackle some local aspect of the health care debate, a friend suggested I talk to Phyllis Benson about her experience with Humana. It wasn’t easy calling a stranger to talk about their lymphoma…and then asking them to talk about it on camera. But Phyllis was a sport and we both agreed that the message was an important one.

Phyllis is one of the warmest people I’ve ever met. She’s genuinely nice…and brutally honest!

You could only hear a piece of her story (because we have time restrictions) but I’ll try to explain more here…

The denied M.R.I. claim was just the start of her battle with Humana. It was also her first major learning experience with a insurance company…and her first victory against them.

She didn’t hear from Humana that her claim had been denied…she heard from New Hanover Regional Medical Center. They sent her a letter that told her that she was responsible for the +$2,000 bill. Phyllis lives on Social Security and there was no way that she could afford that tab. Plus, she was sure that she was covered for the procedure.

Personally, I would have been going ballistic. But Phyllis sat down (calmly) and wrote a letter to Humana explaining the situation. I have a copy of that letter. Its very polite…but very straightforward.

Humana responded with a letter saying….that she would have to wait…to hear a response. When they DID respond, they said that she had waited TOO LONG to send in her appeal. That might have been true…but remember…there was a long delay in her even finding OUT about the denial because she wasn’t contacted by Humana directly.

She continued to write to both the hospital and Humana.

Bill collectors started showing up at her door.

Humana denied the claim three times. On the fourth appeal, they wrote her an apology letter to say that it had all been a processing error and that her check was in the mail.

She says, “Its a shame to have to fight the insurance companies and hospitals after you’ve been fighting a disease.”

That fight continued…and so did her winning streak.

“If they know that you don’t give up and you’re gonna fight ’em, they’ll usually pay it and it’s terrible to have to do that and I know there’s a lot of people out there that don’t know how…but you can do it.” -Phyllis

Phyllis has gotten creative with the her costs and her dealings with her Humana.  Since she has to pay each time her port-a-cath (PAC) is cleaned (a small medical appliance that attaches a port to a vein near the collar bone to deliver chemo)…she delays her cleaning to every 3rd month, instead of every month. She also orders a higher dosage medicine and cuts them in half.

Its these kinds of “shortcuts” that have hospitals concerned…

Mary Ellen Bonczek is the Chief Nurse Executive at New Hanover Regional Medical Center that you saw in the story. She says shortcuts and delays in treatment are what have people arriving at her doorstep sicker than they would have been if they had sought out care at the appropriate time.

That’s not to say that she’s not sympathetic to what people are dealing with on the insurance side of the equation..

 She says, “I see people AFRAID to NOT have insurance. As the consumer, you think you’re paying a premium to get something and then you get denied and you’re like ‘WHAT? What the heck was THAT?! What happened?!'”

If insurance companies are denying more claims, its not just consumers that are hurting…it also means the hospital is losing revenue that they depend on. So at NHRMC, they have created an entire team of nurses and one physician who work on just insurance claims. That effort helps the hospital but it also helps their patients get coverage.

“It is a full-time job – to manage and advocate for the patient completely…We have had to add that level of DAILY critique to make sure that we stay on top of our revenue.”

 You, the consumer, luckily do NOT need to critique your insurance daily but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to know and understand it. Remember, this is something YOU bought and it comes with a hefty booklet of information outlining everything you are and are NOT covered for…

Mary Ellen advises, “Its important for the community and the consumer to talk to their insurance company to know it and to question it. So many people just accept it and they don’t question it. They don’t ask, they don’t call, they don’t follow up. They just say “Oh no.”

Who can blame them? Have you ever tried to READ one of those booklets? Luckily, every insurance company has a hotline.  YES, it is a pain to press all those numbers and negotiate all those channels…but you CAN find humans at the other end who should be able to clarify your policy.

Mary Ellen actually calls this situation a “tightening of controls” from the insurance company to the hospitals. She also says that its those tighter controls that have HELPED them improve their hospital. She says that when she was a nurse, her team wouldn’t think twice about using sterilized wipes (for patients) to wipe down a counter…or wouldn’t give much thought to running a 10th, 11th, 12th test on something…just because. Now they stick to “best practices” which streamline care and keep costs down.

What Mary Ellen wants people to remember is that the greater cost comes in not seeking care. Let me inject a little of my own personal experience here: I started to get bouts of intense pain starting last November and I ignored it until July. Even though the pain was severe I didn’t want to get saddled with hospital expenses or lose time from work. I ended up in the E.R. in May and later in July for exploratory surgery. I am now down an appendix. If I had waited until my appendix had burst…I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now. I too had to experience a push and pull with my insurance company. But in the end, those hassles, that time and what I DID have to pay was worth every penny because I’m healthy today.

“The biggest thing that I can say is, don’t accept ‘no’ for an answer.” -Pat Payne

Pat told me that many claims are rejected because of “code errors.” When a hospital or doctor submits a claim, its done electronically with a code that dictates patient symptoms, diagnoses, treatment, etc. These codes are what insurance companies review and then match to your policy to make sure you are covered.

Pat says that hospitals and doctor’s offices have to churn out a VERY high volume of claims. They are also under time restrictions because the insurance company’s have deadlines. She says that in the crunch, claims get submitted with missing or inappropriate codes and the insurance company kicks out the claim.

Example: you go to the E.R. in excruciating abdominal pain but they can’t figure out what it is. The code for abdominal pain that is submitted to your insurer could mean a WIDE range of things. Unless your records outline how severe your experience was…the insurer may deny your stay because it doesn’t appear the your symptoms were severe enough to warrant a trip to the E.R..

Another example: perhaps the nurse or doctor forgot to include a code. That’s a missing piece of your health puzzle which could cause the claim to be denied.

“If you send in a claim that’s not clear, they’ll throw it right the trash can because that’s gonna take up too much time for them to process that claim,” says Pat.

Pat says that insurance companies often change codes. So your hospital may submit a code that no longer registers with the insurance company’s system (remember: much of this is done electronically). You the consumer have to get in touch with your insurance company to find out the new code and help make a match.

Pat has had her business for 16 years but she’s been in the health insurance agency for 40 (she jokes that she started when she was 4!). She says that, “Insurance companies actually have departments where they have people – all they do is deny claims all day and they get paid bonuses based on the claims they deny. They’re HOPING that you are going to just go ahead and pay the bill yourself.” That’s a pretty heavy charge…so I called the insurance companies to find out if it was true….

I contacted Blue Cross Blue Shield, United, Aetna, Humana & CIGNA. All of them said that there was no such bonus pay system at their company. All of them said that there was nothing out of the ordinary with their denied claims (i.e. an increase). They said they couldn’t provide specific data on their denials without more information…but they didn’t help me figure out what information they needed…OR I was told that the numbers where on the way…but they never showed up.

Apparently, Pat has a close friend who worked for one of these companies who shared the bonus pay tid-bit. Its hard to confirm this without documentation…if you know of where I can look to figure out whose telling the truth…get in touch.

Another piece of advice from Pat: review your hospital bill like your credit card bill, looking at EVERY transaction to make sure it occurred. You may just get an “amount owed” statement but Pat says you should ask for an itemized list. She says that some of her clients have found erroneous charges on their statements that have significantly affected their bills.

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Here is a more information on how the State is dealing with denials and insurance company complaints….

The North Carolina Department of Insurance has a Healthcare Review Program that receives requests for External Reviews. Consumers go through an External Review after they’ve gone through the denial appeal process with their insurer and are running out of options (read: it’s a last resort). Here’s a video that explains it:

http://www.ncdoi.com/ER/er_home.asp.

Here are the number of requests for E.R.’s that their office has received over the years. Note that not all requests meet the criteria, so the number in parentheses shows how many E.R.’s are actually granted.

2002 – 59 (21)

2003 – 220 (90)

2004 – 201 (77)

2005 —291 (107)

2006 – 255 (113)

2007 – 264 (133)

2008 – 188 (89)

2009 (so far) – 76 (35)

Grand total – 1554

You can see that over the years, there have been an increase in the number of people who are dealing with their insurers and are ending up looking for that “last resort.” But be critical…perhaps the increase is also due in part to more people finding out that E.R.’s are an option out there. An increase in applicants could be due to an increase in awareness.

NC DOI’s Consumer Services Division receives thousands of written complaints every year. They say the vast majority are Life and Health complaints and are a mixture of denials, late payments and insufficient claims (amount paid to consumer). The following numbers are the denied claims data from their office…these are the number of complaints received. Note that in some cases the insurer was determined to be at fault…but not always. Their system cannot separate those two numbers. Again…an increase has occurred, especially between 2007 and 2008.

2004- 1490

2005- 1410

2006- 1420

2007- 1443

2008- 1802

 

If you would like more information about filing an External Review, go here: http://www.ncdoi.com/ER/ConsumerInfo/er_main.asp

President Obama’s Speech

We’re now just hours away from the President’s speech “My Future, My Education”  which seems to have elicited more outcry than many expected.

 On Friday we focused our coverage on New Hanover County’s response. We had heard from some parents that they were considering keeping their child out of school on Tuesday (today) because they were concerned over the content of the message. Many of the parents I spoke to (either for or against the speech) were adamant that the other side was wrong about what would be said in the address…..(“He’s not going to talk about education! He’s going to talk about health care!” versus “This is only about motivating our kids, there is nothing political about it!”). To be fair…until last night…no one had any clue what was going to be said because the transcript had not been released. Still… convictions prevailed…

 The state told the school districts that the program should be optional for students…I didn’t get the impression that the districts anticipated some parents taking their kids out for the entire day. One of the parents we spoke to on Friday declared that she was “not political” and that her only worry was that the speech was interrupting her child’s class time. The natural follow-up question for her was, “Does taking them out of school for an entire day also interrupt class time?” (Note: the speech and lessons will take less than an hour and then regular work is set to resume). She told me they have reading they could do at home and it would just turn into a “four day weekend.”

 School officials on Friday reminded parents that Tuesday is STILL a school day and one Principal said it would be an unexcused absence. I’m not sure if that will be the case in every school.

 This is not the first time that a national, state or local politician has come into our schools to address our children…and its not the first time its riled up a feisty reaction. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush made a very similar address on “the future” and graduation rates. Some of President Obama’s supporters say the backlash is because of GOP resentment towards the President. Flash back to 1991…when President Bush spoke to school children…House Majority leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) said “The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students.” So you see…you can never make everyone happy!

 The Brunswick County school board is the only district in our area that will not be showing the speech today. Catherine Cooke was the only Board member to respond to my calls about their decision. She was at work at her real estate firm and due to time constraints it didn’t look like we would be able to meet up with her for an on-camera interview. I was hoping to talk to Superintendent Katie McGee but she did not return the message I left on her cell phone.

 Catherine Cooke said that the decision was made after receiving “numerous” phone calls from parent’s who were concerned about the speech. At the NAACP rally a speaker said that what actually happened was that Board members did a telephone survey. I hope to explore this more and see just what the quantitative results were and how they were obtained.

 In the days that I’ve been following this I’ve heard a wealth of feedback on both sides…some of it seems based on sound judgment…some of it seems to come from rumor mills. No matter WHAT side your on…today’s speech may actually be a very valuable experience for everyone…

 People will challenge your child’s ideas and beliefs for the rest of their life. We all know it doesn’t get any easier the older you get! This will not be the last time that someone who may or may not agree with your political, religious or social ideology makes a public address to your children (who will later become voting adults). It might be valuable to look at this as an opportunity to teach your children how to listen carefully and ask their own questions. When the kids talk about this throughout the day today, they will likely get into their own discussions or arguments over the President or, over his message. These types of challenges will be life-long. For this reason, today may be your opportunity to get them involved and start teaching them how engage in discussion about their political world, rather then subtracting them from the types of confrontations that ultimately help us grow into politically savvy adults.

 Republican, Democrat or Independent…I think we’d all agree that analytical thinking, question-asking and intelligent debate are skills that EVERYONE wants their children to have…

Hurricane: Where do the sexual predators go?

Hurricane shelters are provided to the public for emergency shelter. “The public”…that means the good, the bad…all of us.

Well…not everywhere in America.

In Florida, the state banned sexual predators and offenders from shelters four years ago (with the exception of those on supervised parole). Instead, they can bunk up at one of the local prisons. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd isn’t throwing a pitty party…”It’s their own fault,” Judd said. “They are the ones that misbehaved. They’re the ones that were ultimately designated as a sexual offender or sexual predator. They need to go somewhere else.”

I posed this question to the Sheriff’s Office of New Hanover County. Still waiting to hear back. Then I called Warren Lee, New Hanover County Emergency Management Director….

Warren said that currently, there is no policy on sexual predators at New Hanover county’s hurricane shelters. Emergency service’s goal is to get everyone in safe and sound…and quickly. Basically, there isn’t enough time or resources (officers) to do background checks on everyone at the door.

He also said that here in New Hanover county there has not been a reported problem with predators at our shelters. Still, it may be something to be aware of if you’re heading in with your family. Not to make anyone paranoid…just aware.

Repeat offenders now wear ankle bracelets and monitors that are supposed to track them via satellite. If they go within 300 ft of a location used for minors (i.e. a school) the device is supposed to alert authorities. As you may have seen in my report on the bracelets…the device has some major limitations. Technical limitations aside…”rules” may fall by the way-side in an emergency.

Warren told me that many of the shelters are divided for women/men/families. I’ve never stayed in a shelter so I’m not sure how it works but he says the organization is done with safety in mind.

Again, I bring this up not to cause anxiety, but to reinforce caution. Often the strongest guard against any potential threat…are your own two eyes.

What do YOU think? Should sexual predators be allowed in public hurricane shelters?

A Few Extra Details From My Tabor City Trip…

Friday was my day to head to Tabor City. Reporter Lynda Figueredo has been closely following the Strickland/Soles ongoing saga. However, a schedule change had her coming in with the evening crew. Strickland’s first appearance in court for the suspicious fire at his home was at 9:30am Friday morning so the day started early.

Strickland was seen in District Court by Judge Fairley, who would not allow my camera into the court room. I stashed my gear in an office and followed Strickland upstairs. He was by himself.

When the Judge called him forward the District Attorney reviewed the charges against him: (1) Fraudulently setting fire to dwelling houses (i.e. burning down your house) and (2) Obtaining property with false pretenses (i.e. claiming insurance on the burnt house). Together, if given the maximum penalty, he could face 11 years in jail.

Strickland waived his right to a court appointed attorney – said he would find his own.  Then he got a little reminder from the Judge….

Judge Fairley leaned in and warned Strickland that anything he said outside of the counsel of his lawyer could be held against him in court. Now…I can’t speak for Judge Fairley, but I’m pretty sure that means, “If you continue to openly talk to the media…whatever you say…is fair game for the prosecutor if you go on trail.” At this point I’m thinking, “well…there goes my interview!” Allen has spoken with our crew multiple times, but after getting a stern warning from the bench…I figure that’s all over now…

Allen turned around and headed out of court…I wasn’t not too far behind.

Julie Fertig (reporter, Channel 14) and I followed him outside, cameras in hand, and asked for an interview which, to our shock, he agreed to. (really?!)

That interview went on for about 10 minutes and honestly, he seemed willing to talk for even longer than that. Basically, his defense for the house fire is that he has a house alarm record that shows that he opened the door to inside at 10pm…the fire was set at 4am…he was inside and the fire was set outside. Well…couldn’t he have just thrown something on fire out the window to get the fire going? He just looked at me blankly, as though that was a ridiculous suggestion. Later I met a woman in Tabor City who said she knew Strickland well (I can’t confirm this however), she said he’s just not crafty enough to devise a plan like that. Hopefully, investigators will be able to study the origin of the fire and how it spread and make a conclusion from there. One more note on that woman…she was very nervous to tell me her name or give any identifying information…she said she was terrified that “she’d get burned too” (that her house would also be set on fire). I’ve said this before…tension is high in Tabor City…and everyone seems to fear for what could happen to them if they talk…

Apparently, Strickland was asked to come to the local fire station to fill out permit forms to rebuild his house. He says when he arrived, he saw SBI cars parked on the side of the building. Once inside they handed him the warrants for his arrest and he says he was “shocked.” He says this is all a ploy to get him to talk about R.C. Soles. He called the Senator a “father figure” and says he’d “have nothing if it weren’t for him.”

There’s a lot of curiosity surrounding Strickland’s ability to pay a $100K bond. As you heard in the story, Stickland says that that money was given to him as a gift…he would not say from whom. What he has said repeatedly is that everything he has (money-wise) comes from Senator Soles. Strickland is not working and is not in school…his funding must come from somewhere. Whether or not he has other financiers…I don’t know and Strickland wouldn’t say.

Regarding the bond, Strickland just said that “no” Senator R.C. Soles did not come to bail him out or give him a lump of cash to get out of jail when he was arrested. Anchor Bob Townsend also talked to Soles…he would not do an interview…he just reaffirmed that he did not, on the day that Strickland was arrested, bail him out.

More about the bond: in case you aren’t familiar with how bonding works…if someone has a $100,000 bond (or any amount) they can work with a bond bailsmen to bail you out. Large bonds are given to people who the court feels are a “high risk” or unlikely to appear in court. Bond agent Jamil Best saw Strickland the day he was arrested…the two know each other…Strickland asked for help and Best became his agent. Strickland had to pay Best a percentage of the bond (which is usually between 7-10% of the total…Best asked me not to make his specific percentage public information because of his competitors). So Strickland didn’t have to shell over $100,000…he paid a percentage. Jamil Best now assumes responsibility for the full amount of the bond in the event Strickland doesn’t show. Best told me that Strickland paid a portion of the amount in cash…the rest came from a debit card in his name.

Strickland wasn’t in jail for long…he was cruising around town in his sports car in no time (which he has multiple citations for…).

While I was at the court house I stopped to check on any other pending cases Strickland had. He’s going to be quite a familiar face in Columbus County court: http://www1.aoc.state.nc.us/www/calendars.Officer.do?index=Next+25&start=0&navindex=0&agency=&defname=Strickland%2CAllen%2CWayne

Seems to be quite the variety.

Strickland wouldn’t say who his prospective new lawyer is. He said it’s a toss up between two Raleigh lawyers. Soles’ own lawyer works out of Raleigh but Strickland would not say if he was considering him.

I’ve been getting a kick out of all the viewer comments on our website. Someone suggested this story for a movie one day…

Its certainly got an crazy opening sequence….!