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

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.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Unveiling his reelection platform at an Overland Park rally Tuesday, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback said he would work to create 100,000 private sector jobs over the next four years.

Brownback, speaking at the engineering firm BHC Rhodes, told an audience of several dozen enthusiastic supporters that he would continue his policy of keeping tax rates low to attract businesses and boost the economy.

University of Missouri - Kansas City

Although some disparities have been shrinking in recent years, African-Americans’ experience with health and healthcare still varies dramatically from much of the rest of the population.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans have some of the highest rates of diabetes, infant mortality and hypertension, among other health markers.

For the past 25 years, Kansas City’s Black Healthcare Coalition has been working to improve health in the African-American community.

Hickman Mills has lost a city-sponsored nutrition clinic for women, infants and children.

The Kansas City, Mo., Health Department said on Wednesday that it had closed the clinic at the Freda Markley Early Childhood Center, which is part of the Hickman Mills school district.

The clinic offered services under Missouri’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infant and Children, or WIC.

The Hickman Mills WIC clinic provided healthy food vouchers, nutritional information and medical referrals to 25 women, according to the health department.

Alex Smith / KCUR

After announcing this season’s schedule of peanut allergy-friendly events, the Kansas City Royals saw several sell out, and the team soon added another to keep up with demand.

The announcement came after a campaign from some local fans, and it followed a growing trend of baseball teams working to be more accommodating to fans with allergies.

University of Kansas Hospital

When Steve Jobs needed a liver transplant in 2009, the Apple CEO left California and went to Memphis, Tenn. While his home state has some of the longest waiting lists in the country for donated livers, Tennessee has some of the shortest.

Many health advocates point to Jobs’ story as an example of the harsh disparities faced by those who need new livers in different parts of the country.

Plans are in the works to fix those disparities, but some Kansas City doctors worry about what a shake-up would mean for local hospitals and patients.

Alex Smith / KCUR

At the Kauffman Foundation Conference Center on Thursday afternoon, Eyvette Carter struggled to carry on a basic conversation with her husband, Warren.

She was distracted in no small part by Karl Chaney whispering in her ear.

“Don’t trust him. Is he looking at you? Why would he want to talk to you?” Chaney said.

The group was taking part in an auditory hallucination simulation, designed to demonstrate the experience of a psychotic episode.

Two adults in Sedgwick County, Kan., in the south-central part of the state, have been diagnosed with a rare virus after returning from separate trips to the Caribbean.

The mosquito-borne chikungunya virus can result in joint pain and weakness that may last for years, but Kansas health officials say local transmission is highly unlikely.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Over a fifth of Missourians, especially those who live in rural areas, don't have adequate access to doctors, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Now the state Legislature has approved a plan to address the problem by creating a new kind of health occupation.

The first such plan in the country, it has pitted health providers against one another amid concerns about its effect on the health of patients and the dilution of professional standards.

Medically underserved

Alex Smith / KCUR

Truman Medical Centers' new outpatient center will provide a range of medical services beyond the acute care for which the system is best known.

At a ceremonial groundbreaking Friday morning, Truman President and CEO John Bluford said the center — a four-story, 90,0000-square-foot building at Truman's Hospital Hill campus costing $29 million — was a symbol of the alliance between Truman and its physician partners.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce is asking the public what its priorities should be as the first step in a new health initiative.

Healthy KC is a collaboration introduced Wednesday by the Chamber, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City and local health leaders. The group will focus on improving health throughout the metro area.

“The message behind the new Healthy KC Commission is, ‘We’re sick and tired of feeling sick and tired,’” Chamber CEO Jim Heeter said in a statement Wednesday.

Duane Cramer / Duane Cramer Creative

This Friday is National HIV Testing Day, first created almost 20 years ago to encourage members of the public to learn their HIV status. Since then, what it means to be HIV-positive has changed dramatically.

Individuals diagnosed as positive today can expect to live as long as they would without the virus, as long as they receive treatment.

But many HIV patients, especially in African American communities, don't receive the treatment they need, and health advocates blame that on the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS.

Women and children escaping domestic abuse often need more than shelter. Many also have serious medical issues.

To address them, Rose Brooks Center, one of the area's largest domestic violence shelters, on Thursday opened a new two-bed health clinic inside its Kansas City facility.

Susan Miller, Rose Brooks' CEO, says the clinic will fill a vital need for the more than 800 women and children sheltered by the agency each year.

Debbie Cole

How divisive was the debate over Medicaid expansion in Missouri this year?

Just ask Debbie Cole, a 51-year-old mother of four who lives in Butler, Mo., and signed a petition asking state legislators to extend Medicaid to cover more low-income residents.

“We all live different lives, and some people out there may be working two or three jobs and have no insurance, and they need it to survive,” she says.

About a month after signing the petition, Cole got a letter from her state senator, Republican Ed Emery of Lamar.

Courtesy / Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri

Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri has chosen a new president and chief executive officer to succeed Peter Brownlie, who retired two months ago.

Laura McQuade has served for the past six years as chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, based in New York. The organization more than doubled its budget and staff during her tenure, according to a news release announcing her appointment.

University of Missouri - Kansas City

About 75 percent of kidney transplant recipients fail to properly take the medications they need to stay healthy, says Cynthia Russell, a professor at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Nursing and Health Studies.

After receiving a transplant, patients - many of whom previously needed kidney dialysis – typically feel healthy and often simply forget to take medications as needed twice a day.

“They are active. They are feeling good. They are just living normal lives,” Russell says.

Wikimedia -- CC

The new acting secretary of Veterans Affairs is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Sloan Gibson IV graduated from UMKC in 1979 with a master's degree in economics, according to a release from the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs.

Gibson became acting secretary following the resignation of retired U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki on Friday.

Kansas City ranks No. 4 among cities in the United States in access residents have to quality doctors and hospitals, according to a report released by Vitals, a website that collects data on doctors and provider quality.

The report considered provider-to-resident ratios, doctor quality, ease of getting an appointment and wait times.

Alex Smith / KCUR

The older you get, the more complicated and expensive health care becomes. A study from the National Institutes of Health shows that half the money that’s spent on Americans’ health is spent on care after age 65.

That’s why changes to the health system – like the Affordable Care Act and Medicare reform — can be especially concerning to older people.

Alex Smith / KCUR

For fifteen-year-old Antonio Franco, going out to something like a baseball game can be complicated, even dangerous.

“I accidently ate the wrong kind of cookie,” he says, remembering a severe allergic reaction. “We ended up having to rush to the hospital.”

Franco is one of an increasing number of children and teenagers who have severe food allergies, especially to peanuts. Because peanuts and foods containing peanut traces are so common, these kids and their parents are often limited in where they can go for fun.

Todd Feeback / KCPT

Despite the well-known risks, rates of smoking have remained stubbornly high in Missouri – about 25 percent of adults, compared with 18 percent nationally. In Kansas City public housing, the problem is even worse, with smokers comprising 40 percent of all tenants.

That high rate is especially disturbing to health advocates because of the high numbers of vulnerable people, particularly children, the disabled and elderly, who live in public housing.

A new policy aims to do away with smoking in city-owned housing, but many residents are not pleased.

The Community Blood Center of Greater Kansas City will merge with the New York Blood Center, one of the largest independent community-based blood centers in the United States.

In a statement Monday, the Kansas City organization said the merger would provide a “greater breadth of services, efficiency and financial stability.”

Lisa Keller, spokesperson for the Community Blood Center, said plans for the partnership started to develop about three years ago. The merger was prompted, in part, by lower demand for donated blood.

Julie Denesha / KCUR

 The University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance has a potential site for its future downtown campus.

UMKC Chancellor  Leo Morton announced Monday morning that the school has received a pledge from an anonymous group of donors to purchase a full city block in the Crossroads Arts District along Broadway Street between 17th and 18th Streets, directly south of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The announcement took place at the Kauffman Center, overlooking the site.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Missouri has a distinction that troubles many involved in public health: It's the only state in the country that does not monitor prescription drugs.

Some say that heightens the problem of prescription drug abuse.

Missouri legislators are trying to create a drug monitoring system, but concerns over privacy have stirred opposition.

Rising abuse

Missouri spends the least on public health per person in the country, according to a new report out from the non-partisan Trust for America's Health. 

The Show-Me state spent just $5.86 per person, compared with a national average of $27.49, in fiscal 2013, the report says.

Federal health exchange enrollments more than doubled in Missouri and nearly doubled in Kansas in the weeks leading up to the enrollment deadline, according to figures released by the government Thursday. 

In Missouri, enrollment through the federal marketplace shot up to 152,335 - a 105 percent increase over the number who selected a health plan by the end of February. In Kansas, enrollment increased to 57,013 - a 95 percent jump over February.

Tax cuts in Kansas have "landed with a thud," according to the co-author of a report that criticizes the state's actions for harming public services and sapping the state's long-term economic vitality. 

The report, which was released by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, says massive tax cuts enacted by Kansas lawmakers in 2012 have left the state's schools, public health departments and other public services "stuck in the recession." 

The FBI is investigating possible influence peddling by former aides of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, according to a story Sunday in The Topeka Capital-Journal.

The FBI is also looking into whether the governor’s office pressured the for-profit companies that run the state Medicaid system to use lobbyists from Parallel Strategies, a firm founded by the former aides, including the governor’s former chief of staff, David Kensinger, the newspaper reported.

Alex Smith / KCUR

The Kansas City Royals said on Thursday that they would offer special events at select games for those with severe peanut allergies.

The announcement was a victory for Janna Miller of Knob Noster, Mo.

In March, Miller started a Facebook group to encourage allergy-sensitive events at Royals games after noticing none listed on this season’s schedule.

Her son, Weston, was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy when he was three.

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