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

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.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Only six people were able to sign up for private health insurance plans on the first day of open enrollment last year, due to widespread computer problems with the online insurance marketplaces. So enrollment helpers breathed a big sigh of relief earlier this month when the second round of enrollment launched with few glitches.

Creative Commons-Pixabay

One of Missouri's largest employers will no longer hire nicotine users.

As of January 1, 2015, MU Health Care, the five-hospital University of Missouri health system based in Columbia, Mo., said it won't offer jobs to people who smoke cigarettes, cigars or pipes, chew tobacco or "vape" electronic cigarettes.

The health system made the announcement Thursday to coincide with the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout holiday.

Children's Mercy Hospital

About 3,000 infants are born each year with single-ventricle heart defects.

While that’s a relatively small number, for the newborns’ families the diagnosis can be devastating, says Dr. Girish Shirali, co-director of the Ward Family Heart Center at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

“It’s very difficult for families, because nobody expects this. So it kind of comes like a bolt from the blue,” he says.

Mike Sherry / Hale Center for Journalism at KCPT

 

As the Affordable Care Act’s second open enrollment period began Saturday, for-profit and non-profit groups ramped up efforts to assist populations that have proven hard to reach.

At events in and around Kansas City, counselors, insurance brokers and insurance companies held public education events and free health fairs to reach the uninsured and underinsured among minority populations and apprise them of their coverage options. 

Cockroaches, mold and mouse feces at Kauffman stadium food stands: Those were some of the food safety violations that Aramark district food safety manager Jon Costa related to ESPN’s "Outside the Lines" television program in a segment that aired on Friday. 

Costa, whom the Philadelphia-based company has since placed on paid administrative leave,  also voiced his concerns about food safety at Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums to the Kansas City, Mo., health department on Nov. 3.

Cerner Corp.

Cerner Corp., the Kansas City-based health care information technology giant, broke ground Wednesday on its huge campus in south Kansas City, Mo., a project that’s eventually expected to house as many as 16,000 workers.

Cerner officials, along with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Kansas City mayor Sly James, took part in the ceremony at the site of the now-demolished Bannister Mall, once one of the area’s biggest shopping centers. The mall closed in 2007 and was torn down in 2009.  

Department of Health and Human Services

Many health experts say that, to save money and improve care, the United States needs to get past paper records and frequent visits to the doctor.

And to encourage the switch to standardized electronic records, the federal government has begun offering incentives to providers.

But the push to innovate has been met with some resistance. Dr. Jacob Reider is deputy national coordinator of  health information technology for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Alex Smith / KCUR

The open enrollment period for 2015 health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act is coming up on Nov. 15 and extends to Feb. 15.

The federal health reform law has changed the way many consumers buy and use insurance. For insurance companies, it has transformed their entire way of doing business.

For this month’s KC Checkup, Heartland Health Monitor talks with Ron Rowe, vice president of sales for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City, which provides insurance to more than a million customers.

Alex Smith / KCUR

When the Royals won the American League Championship in mid-October, Selim Henderson got busy buying T-shirts.

A lot of T-shirts.

“I bought about 30 dozen to start with,” Henderson says.

He set up a roadside stand in south Kansas City, and sales went so well, he bought another 30 dozen.

His best seller? The Royal Flush.

“That has five of the players on cards – ace, king, queen, jack, ten – and that’s the winning hand in poker,” Henderson says.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Making the rounds at a public housing complex in Kansas City, Kan., community health worker Rinzin Wangmo is greeted by cheery voices and faces.

As she enters a home, the heavy aroma of chopped onions stings her nose, and she hurries up a short flight of stairs to escape the burn. After gently knocking on a door, she walks in to meet with a woman who’s bedridden with pain. 

The woman’s condition is not unusual among Bhutanese refugees, according to University of Kansas professor Dr. Joe LeMaster.

Missouri News Horizon / Flickr--CC

Medicaid expansion may yet happen in Missouri, according to state Sen. Ryan Silvey.

The Kansas City Republican said on Friday that he believes he has the support he needs to pass a Medicaid expansion bill that addresses the concerns of his more conservative colleagues.

Alex Smith / KCUR

 

Sunrise is just starting to break over the skies of St. Joseph, but Dr. Bob Stuber is busy under fluorescent lights, examining a patient inside the hundred-year-old building that houses the Social Welfare Board. After decades heading an internal medicine practice, working at a charity clinic is a big change for Stuber. But it’s not the only post-retirement shift for a doctor who voted Republican for most of his 75 years.

Definitive testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed that a University of Kansas Hospital patient suspected of contracting Ebola does not have the virus.

The Kansas City, Kan., man had worked as a medic on a ship off the west coast of Africa until returning home a week ago. He was admitted to the hospital Monday morning showing concerning symptoms.

The patient has been moved to a lower level of isolation, and doctors say he’s improving.

They suspect he contracted a tropical disease.

File photo

The University of Kansas Hospital says a patient who recently worked as a medic on a ship off the coast of West Africa came to the hospital early Monday morning feeling sick and is being tested for Ebola.

The hospital said the patient was at "low to moderate risk" of Ebola but the hospital was taking no chances.

In a statement, it said the patient was met by staff wearing personal protection equipment and following guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Contrary to rumors on the Internet over the last few days, health providers and officials say there are no confirmed cases of Ebola in Kansas City.

A spokesperson with HCA Midwest says that a man rushed to Research Medical Center’s Brookside campus over the weekend did not have the disease.

Hospital officials declined to disclose his diagnosis but say he is responding well to treatment.

Kaiser Health News

 

Twenty hospitals in the Kansas City area will be penalized by Medicare starting Oct. 1 for excessive readmissions, although eight of them will be hit with lower fines than in Medicare’s previous round of penalties.

Saint Luke’s East Hospital in Lee’s Summit will get hit with the biggest fine, 2.08 percent of its Medicare reimbursements, according to an analysis by Kaiser Health News of data released this week by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).

Todd Feeback / The Hale Center for Journalism at KCPT

If the idea of music therapy brings to mind 1960s-era folk singers warbling to bemused patients, you haven’t seen Deanna Hanson-Abromeit at work.

At Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, the University of Kansas assistant professor sings a good morning song to Daren, a curious, if slightly cautious, infant. 

The tune is a simple one, and the singer bubbles over with enthusiasm, but her musical interventions are more of a conversation than a performance.

Alex Smith / KCUR

The Latino population has been booming in Kansas in places where growth is otherwise stagnant.

Today, one in 10 Kansans is Latino. But there’s a big disconnect between that growing community and the health care system, according to Paula Cupertino.

She’s the Brazil-born director of Juntos, a group based at the University of Kansas Medical Center that examines Latino health in Kansas. She answered four questions as part of our monthly series, KC Checkup. 

Julie Denesha

    

A new program in Kansas aims to improve conditions in prisons, but it’s not for inmates. The state Department of Corrections is one of many prison and jail systems around the country working to overcome “correctional fatigue” — the mental and physical stress that lead to corrections workers burning out.

From Orange Is The New Black to Shawshank Redemption to Cool Hand Luke, prison guards often have gotten a bad rap as some of the worst bullies featured on television and in the movies.

And that rankles John Bates.

Bigstock

Call them e-cigarettes, vapes, e-juices or e-liquids. Just don’t call them tobacco.

Early last Thursday, Missouri legislators overwhelmingly overrode the governor’s veto of a bill governing electronic cigarettes and the nicotine-infused mixtures they deliver. While the new law bans sales to minors, it also prevents e-cigarettes from being classified as "tobacco products."

“It was operating under the guise of protecting youth, but really it just created a special carve-out for a special interest,” says Traci Kennedy, executive director of Tobacco-Free Missouri.

The rare Enterovirus D68, which has afflicted hundreds of children since the start of August, may have peaked.

Children’s Mercy Hospital is currently seeing about 20 patients per day with the breathing difficulties, coughing and fever common to the virus, according to hospital spokesperson Jake Jacobson.

That’s compared with about 30 cases per day a week and a half ago.

The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the virus in 19 specimens from Kansas City and 11 specimens from Chicago in late August.

Sean Winters / Flickr -- Creative Commons

If your child has been coughing or wheezing recently, it may have nothing to do with allergies or asthma.

In the past few weeks, Kansas City hospitals have seen an influx of children suffering from the symptoms of a rare respiratory virus during what is usually the low season for respiratory issues.

“Across the region, emergency rooms have been full, pediatric units have been near capacity across town,” says Dr. Mike Lewis, a University of Kansas Medical Center pediatrician.

Alex Smith / KCUR

The University of Kansas fall semester started this week, and along with new classes comes a big change in lifestyle for thousands of students. Junk food, all-night study sessions, marathon parties – the college life has a reputation as being a less-than-healthy one.

For this month’s KC Checkup, KCUR’s Alex Smith spoke with KU health educator and grant coordinator Jenny McKee about the health of the latest generation of young scholars.  

Alex Smith / KCUR

 

A forum in Overland Park Tuesday morning drew attention to the importance of National Institutes of Health funding. U.S. Rep.  Kevin Yoder, NIH official Christopher Austin and University of Kansas officials spoke before an audience of about 150 at KU’s Edwards campus. Yoder, a Kansas Republican, said that while he’s concerned with the federal deficit and overspending, he supports NIH funding.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Carlo Cavallaro pours a brown liquid into a device that looks a little like a Star Trek phaser. When it hits battery-heated coils, the liquid sizzles and turns into vapor. He takes a big draw and exhales a sugary-smelling cloud.

Cavallaro makes his own custom nicotine-infused e-cigarette juice.

“This one that I have here is a fudge brownie,” he says.

E-cigarettes have only been around the United States for about seven years, and during that time they have been left largely unregulated by the federal government or most state governments, including Missouri.

Dan Margolies / KCUR

Speakers at a forum hosted by the Sierra Club Wednesday evening blamed the Veolia Energy power plant near downtown Kansas City for contributing to dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide air pollution in the area.

Health, environmental and religious leaders gathered in the Columbus Park neighborhood near the plant to discuss health concerns raised by emissions from Veolia and other coal plants in Missouri.

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