Alex Smith

Reporter, Heartland Health Monitor

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR, a  partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team. HHM is a reporting collaboration among KCUR, KHI News Service in Topeka, Kan., KCPT television in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas Public Radio in Lawrence, Kan. 

Alex Smith began working in radio as an intern at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. A few years and a couple of radio jobs later, he became the assistant producer of KCUR's magazine show, KC Currents. He became health reporter at KCUR in January 2014.
 

Ways To Connect

The stakes for Kansas to expand Medicaid have been raised.

The state received notice from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last week that if it doesn’t expand its Medicaid program, it would lose federal funding for uncompensated health care, according to officials from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The federal government provides money for the state’s uncompensated care pool to reimburse health care providers who serve the uninsured.

Tony Cenicola / Michael Moss

For decades, food companies have been deliberately bumping up the salt, sugar and fat levels in processed foods to get us hooked. And those unhealthy foods have played a big part in our current epidemic of health problems, including obesity and diabetes. So argues Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss in his 2013 book “Salt, Sugar and Fat: How The Food Giants Got Us Hooked.” KCUR caught up with Moss recently when the author was in town to speak at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

Shortly after a massive twister struck his city in May 2011, Joplin, Missouri, resident Brandon McCoy described what he saw during what turned out to be one of the worst tornadoes in U.S. history.

“Standing on the sixth floor, I was trying to help a woman out of some debris, and you look outside and, just, everything’s gone,” he told NPR at the time. “Everything. And nobody knew what happened.”

The tornado left a wide swath of destruction in its wake. One hundred fifty-eight people died. Property damage was catastrophic.  

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

A Kansas City, Kan., facility meant to improve emergency mental health care was lauded by state officials, mental health service providers and law enforcement officials at a first-anniversary celebration Tuesday.

Rainbow Services Inc. opened April 7, 2014, to provide stabilization services for mental health or substance abuse emergencies. The facility near the University of Kansas Medical Center previously housed the Rainbow Mental Health Facility, a former state mental hospital.

For years, Missouri has been the only state in the country that doesn’t monitor prescription drugs, but that may be about to change.

The Missouri Senate on Thursday, by a 24-10 vote, approved a bill that would create a drug monitoring program that addresses some of the privacy concerns raised by opponents. The vote marked the first time the Senate has approved such a program.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Kansas City has been making a lot of lists lately, recognized by various national websites and newspapers as a top entrepreneurial city and a great town for millennials.

Wahid Mulla / Rong Li Lab-Stowers Institute

One of the big challenges in treating cancer is that cancer cells mutate and become resistant to treatment. A drug may work for a while, then lose its effectiveness. Cancer cells’ ability to mutate has long frustrated researchers, but some now view it as an opportunity to try new approaches to treatment.

In Kansas City, one scientist is leading the way by trying to create an ‘evolutionary trap’ to fight the disease.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

Parenting is a tough job for anyone, but raising children with autism, who often have behavioral or communication problems, can be especially demanding.

Research has shown that parents of children with autism are at increased risk of depression.

But in Kansas City, some of these mothers and fathers are finding a measure of respite, and sympathetic ears, through comedy.

On a recent Thursday night, a handful of parents with kids who have autism took a break from parenting and faced down their latest challenge: stage fright.

Twice as many Kansans and Missourians signed up for health insurance this year under the Affordable Care Act compared with the first enrollment period last year, new figures released Tuesday show.

More than 250,000 Missourians and nearly 100,000 Kansans selected plans on the federal insurance exchange, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The data reflects complete enrollment numbers for the period from Nov. 15, 2014, through Feb. 15, 2015, and includes additional special enrollment activity through Feb. 22.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

In the pediatric clinic at Samuel U. Rodgers Health Center, nurse Constance Grayson gives newborn-care instructions to a jittery-looking young couple.

Samuel U. Rodgers is one of Kansas City’s largest safety net health clinics, and the doctors and nurses here take pride in offering care to all. That means learning to expect the unexpected.

But cuts in funding are something else, according to CEO Hilda Fuentes, who  recently got a letter explaining that the money she gets from the city would be cut this fiscal year by more than 10 percent, or about $167,000.

University of Missouri-Kansas City

Missouri’s medical schools on Friday kicked off a collaborative effort to encourage minorities to enter the health care professions.

Former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan, who served under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1993, helped launch the project, delivering a lecture Friday at the University of Missouri-Kansas City on the state of diversity in the health care workforce since 1965.

Alex Smith / KCUR

St. Louis police, city officials and civic leaders took some pointers from Kansas City on Monday for strategies to reduce homicides.

In meetings at the police department headquarters, Kansas City police passed along crime prevention strategies implemented as part of the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVA, strategy, which they credit with last year's drop in homicides.

In 2014, the Kansas City homicides totaled 79, a drop of 21 percent from the previous year. During the same period, St. Louis's homicide total grew to 159.

Philip Taylor / Creative Commons-Flickr

 

In addition to big changes in health care, the Affordable Care Act has also brought changes to income tax filings. And as April 15 approaches, many taxpayers will look for help from people like Aimee Sanita. She’s the owner of Circle Tax and Accounting, and for the next two months she’s figuring on 60-80 hour workweeks. Sanita recently took a few minutes out of her busy day to help Heartland Health Monitor’s Alex Smith understand how the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, affects people’s taxes.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Blacks in Kansas City still lag considerably behind whites when it comes to economics, education and health.  That’s according to the Urban League of Greater Kansas City’s latest State of Black Kansas City report, which was assembled by a team of economists. The report says the disparities are largely the product of poverty and geography. Urban League CEO Gwendolyn Grant told Heartland Health Monitor’s Alex Smith she was disappointed by many of the findings.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

If you’re in the market for fluorescent light bulbs, you might talk to Chris Smiley. In the past few weeks, she’s been trying to sell off what’s left of Sac-Osage Hospital.

“Casework, lighting, plumping, sinks, toilets. Anything you want,” Smiley says.

That’s not in her job description. She’s actually the CEO of Sac-Osage, a hospital in Osceola, Mo., that closed in September.

“I have become an auctioneer,” Smiley says. “And I’ve learned more about asbestos and construction demolition than I ever wanted to know.”

Elana Gordon / KCUR

Health information technology giant Cerner has just gotten bigger.

The Kansas City-based company finalized its purchase of Siemens’ Health Services, a health information technology division, on Monday.

With the $1.3 billion all-cash purchase, Cerner increased its payroll by about a third to more than 21,000.

Cerner says the deal, which was announced in August, will boost annual revenues to between $4.8 billion and $5 billion in 2015, up from $3 billion in 2013, the last year for which figures are available.

Alex Smith / Heartland Health Monitor

Millie McWilliams comes to life when she listens to the party music of Jason Aldean. The 9-year-old discovered the country-pop superstar at a family friend’s house, and her love of the genre came as a bit of a surprise to her parents.

“I’ve actually gotten into it because of her!” Earl McWilliams says. “You know, that’s how it is with your kids. You find yourself interested in whatever they’re interested in, just to stay connected to them.”

Alex Smith / KCUR

The Kansas City area may soon be home to a network of 1,000 electric vehicle charging stations capable of serving 10,000 electric cars and trucks.

Kansas City Power and Light Co. announced Monday plans to create the Clean Charge Network in partnership with Nissan and ChargePoint, a charging station manufacturer.

Republican Missouri State Sen. Ryan Silvey of Kansas City announced Tuesday a plan that would expand Medicaid for veterans and their families.

At a press event at the Capitol, Silvey introduced the Veteran’s Family Healthcare Act, which would provide Medicaid coverage for veterans, their spouses and dependent children with incomes between 19 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

“If we can’t solve the whole problem, let’s solve a piece of it,” Silvey said.

Thousands of Kansans and Missourians signed up for insurance on the federal exchange last week, though the pace has slowed since the first several robust weeks of the second Affordable Care Act open enrollment period.

New figures released Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services show that during the week ending Jan. 16, 11,797 new or renewing enrollees in Missouri brought the state total to 209,336.

The total in Kansas reached 80,064 with the addition of 4,228 signing up.

This winter’s flu epidemic appears to have peaked, but the virus remains highly dangerous.

At a news conference Friday, Children’s Mercy Hospital pediatrician Robyn Livingston said two young patients had died of complications related to the flu. She did not provide specific patient information, citing privacy reasons.

She said, however, that flu deaths among children tend to be complicated cases. 

“Most of the children that have bad outcomes have underlying medical conditions,” Livingston said.

The number of Missourians and Kansans signing up for private health insurance in the federal marketplace has surpassed last year’s numbers, and enrollment continues at a steady clip.

Figures released Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) show that nearly 76,000 Kansans and nearly 198,000 Missourians chose a health plan or re-enrolled on HealthCare.gov between the start of open enrollment on Nov. 15 and Jan. 9.

Enrollment in both states has surged about 94 percent in the last month.

At roughly the midpoint of the second Affordable Care Act open-enrollment period, health advocates say they’re happy with the number of people signing up in Missouri.

Ryan Barker, vice president of health policy at the Missouri Foundation for Health, said that more than 102,000 people enrolled in health plans in the first month alone. In the entire first open enrollment period, 152,000 people signed up.

“We are very confident that we will exceed the numbers from last year,” Barker said in a teleconference Thursday with reporters.

The phrase “flu epidemic” might raise alarm bells for some, but don’t let headlines about this season’s outbreak scare you too much.

“The ‘epidemic’ designation is basically just a way we characterizes whether flu season has started or not,” says Erin Burns, a health communications specialist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza division.

In fact, a flu epidemic occurs every year.

Burns says the CDC declares an epidemic when health providers have reported high numbers of flu-like symptoms, hospitalizations and deaths.

Missouri’s abortion regulations, among the strictest in the nation, may get even stricter.

Several lawmakers have already pre-filed abortion-related legislation in both the state House of Representatives and Senate.

NIAID / National Institutes of Health

 

Kansas and Missouri rank in the bottom half of states in preparedness for potential outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola, Enterovirus and ‘superbugs,’ according to a report released Thursday.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Just after picking him up from day care, Wendy Santillan serves her son, Raoul, milk and cookies.

Raoul, a 3-year-old with a crew cut and big brown eyes, happily devours his snack. But Wendy says she noticed early on some unusual behavior in her son.

“When he was 18 months, he starts to play with the toys in a different way,” she says. “He used to pass the toy (along) the corner of his eye, and that wasn’t normal at all to me.”

One of the biggest hospitals in the southern part of metropolitan Kansas City is about to get even bigger.

The Olathe City Council this week approved $47.1 million in bonds on behalf of Olathe Medical Center to help finance expansion of the hospital. The project carries an estimated $67 million dollar price tag.

“Projects of this magnitude show the commitment Olathe Medical Center has to this city and this region,” Erin Vader, a spokeswoman for the city, said in a phone interview.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Like many people in rural, medically underserved areas, many of Kansas’ Native American groups struggle with health problems.

The four largest groups – the Iowa, Kickapoo, Prairie Band Potawatomi, and Sac and Fox – live in isolated reservations in northeastern parts of the state.

In August, the tribes held a Kansas Tribal Health Summit, the first time all four met to address common tribal health issues.

As part of our monthly series, KC Checkup, Heartland Health Monitor’s Alex Smith spoke with Prairie Band Potawatomi council member Carrie O’Toole about those issues.

BikeWalkKC

 

Bike commuters and enthusiasts may soon have more options for safely trekking through downtown Kansas City, Mo.

The Public Works Department disclosed plans Tuesday for redesigning traffic flow and creating bike lanes on a mile-and-a-half stretch of Grand Avenue between the Crossroads and the River Market.

“It’s an opportunity to take Grand from a traditional 1960’s six-lane arterial into a more walkable, livable three-lane street with bike lanes and better pedestrian accommodations,” said Wes Minder, manager of capital planning for the city.

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