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

At the University of Kansas, some chemical engineers study petroleum, others work on solvents. Then there’s Professor Stevin Gehrke. He casts his scientific lens downward, looking for the future of medicine in things that scurry underfoot.

“What’s different about a bug that goes ‘squish’ when you step on it and a bug that goes ‘crunch’ when you step on it?” Gehrke describes his work.

Kansas ranks near the top of states and Missouri near the bottom when it comes to protecting physicians against lawsuits. That's according to a new report card from the American College of Emergency Physicians. The report applauds Kansas’s malpractice tort reform but condemns Missouri for its higher-than-average malpractice award payments.

The physician’s group behind the new rankings says medical lawsuits drive up health costs as much as 108 billion dollars a year nationally.

The Kansas legislature is back in session this week but they probably won’t be debating a Medicaid expansion, after a recommendation from Gov. Sam Brownback.

Expansion supporters had hoped that at least an expansion compromise could happen this year. But the governor’s statement makes any expansion in the near future all but impossible, because the GOP controlled House has said they will only take up the issue at the governor's urging.

Still, many in the state are pushing for some change to Medicaid, which was intended to be part of the Affordable Care Act.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Changes to insurance have been getting all the headlines, but the Affordable Care Act aims to change the way doctors operate as well.

The federal law offers incentives for health providers to work together to keep Medicare patients healthy in hopes of saving money. Whether this approach can actually create savings is still unclear, and many doctors remain skeptical. But in Kansas City, a few doctors are teaming up.

The so-called swine flu is back. New numbers come out last week, but still early in the season, the virus has sent droves to the hospital and put an unlikely section of the population at risk.

Back in 2009, the H1N1 virus caused a pandemic, infecting nearly 60 million in the United States. This season, local reports of H1N1, along with other flu types, began to surge in early December 2013, according to the Kansas City, Missouri Health Department.

The Department’s Jeff Hershberger says it’s not just the elderly and children in danger.

KU Medical Center

The University of Kansas School of Medicine announced Tuesday afternoon that Dr. Robert Samari will become the school's new executive dean.

Samari comes from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he currently serves as vice chair of the Division of Cardiovascular Diseases and co-director of the Mayo Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences.

Simari grew up in Overland Park and graduated from Shawnee Mission West High School. He received his medical degree from KU in 1986.

Simari is also co-founder of Anexon, a biotech company based in Cambridge, Mass.

Kansas will receive a bonus of $10.8 million in federal Medicaid funding for improving access to and increasing enrollment in the Children's Health Insurance Program, which is part of the Medicaid program.

Kansas has received similar bonuses from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for each of the last five years. Bonus amounts correspond to increases in enrollment of children in Medicaid.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Editor's note: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not approve the inclusion of long-term services for the intellectually and developmentally disabled into KanCare, according to a report published this morning by the Kansas Health Institute. We will update this post as more information becomes available.

The original story, reported prior to the report, starts here:

Frank Morris / KCUR

KCUR's Top Stories Of 2013

KCUR’s afternoon newsman Steve Bell gives us a preview of his 2013 Year in Review, in which he goes over the most significant local stories of 2013: from the gas explosion on the Country Club Plaza to the unexpected prowess of KC’s sports teams.

National Attention Turns To Maryville

In a phone conversation on Thursday afternoon, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius discussed some of the current issues surrounding the Affordable Care Act.

Sebelius has faced criticism over the health exchange rollout, canceled insurance policies and abortion coverage. Some of her strongest critics hail from Kansas, the state where Sebelius twice served as governor. 

Insurance shoppers will need to register on the marketplaces by Monday, Dec. 23 to get coverage starting on Jan. 1, 2014. Open enrollment will continue until March 31.

Courtesy of Phil Dixon

Hallmark Cookie Exchang Feeds Artistic Community

Since the mid-1960's, Hallmark employees, past and present, and their spouses, have gathered each year - not for an exchange of greeting cards, but of cookies. KCUR’s Julie Denesha stopped by this year’s cookie exchange to bring us this audio postcard.

As Greeting Card Sales Decline, What Is The Future Of Hallmark?

Bill Krejci

At the end of each year, lots of people look back and take stock. But no one has a 2013 story to tell quite like Billy Ray Harris.

Harris went from panhandling on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Mo., to being a national media sensation after he returned a lost engagement ring that was accidentally dropped in his panhandling cup.

Inspired by Harris’s actions, people from around the world donated money to Harris to help him change his life. Now that things have calmed down a bit, Billy Ray Harris looks back on the year with gratitude and a little bafflement.

Gov. Jay Nixon says Missouri is sorely lacking in mental health services, but he hopes to fix that with more higher education spending. 

Speaking Wednesday at UMKC’s School of Nursing, the Governor said his balanced budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015 included $20 million in grants for schools to train future psychiatrists, psychologist and mental health nurses.

Only 10 of the state’s 114 counties currently have adequate mental health care, according to a federal report.

Kansas lags behind Missouri in being prepared for infectious diseases. That’s according to a new report from the Trust for America’s Health. 

Both states lose points for low vaccination rates and for cutting funding for public health. Kansas also ranked low because it doesn’t require health facilities to report infections.

But Dr. Jeffrey Levi says our region isn’t the only place falling behind on those prevention measures.

Gilead Sciences

In the past, the standard treatments for hepatitis C have been nearly as bad as the disease, making some patients feel like they have a severe flu. And, even with treatment, hepatitis C often doesn’t get better. But things could be changing for the over three million people infected in the United States. A new class of improved hepatitis C drugs is emerging, and they're being tested in Kansas City.

“When you get a call that says you’ve got hepatitis, it’s a wakeup call,” says 57-year old Bob Barber.

Sylvia Maria Gross / KCUR

Keeping Kids Safe And Engaged On School Buses

We discuss what it takes to be a school bus driver, how safe buses really are, and some innovative new programs to keep kids engaged while they're on the bus, and make the most of what’s usually down time.

Tell KCUR: Sporting KC Fans Get A Kick Out Of Connection To Team

Now that has undergone some major tweaks, supporters of the Affordable Care Act hope that a lot more people will go online and compare insurance rates. But what might surprise shoppers is how rates and subsidies vary depending on their address.

In Missouri, insurance buyers in different parts of the Show-Me State are seeing some of the most extreme cost differences in the country. 

Alex Smith / KCUR

On Monday morning, Kansas Department of Health and Environment director of Health Care Finance, Kari Bruffett, addressed a packed legislative oversight meeting about issues with Kansas' new privatized Medicaid program, KanCare. Her department oversees the work of the three managed care companies that started administering the program that was rolled out this year.

She said that most of the glitches that came at the start of KanCare have been fixed, and the new system is now working nearly as well as the old Medicaid system.

Esther Honig / KCUR

KanCare Means Big Medicaid Cuts For Prairie Village Man

Finn Buller was born with a rare degenerative disease that has required a lot of complicated medical care including 24/7 in-home care. Now, as Kansas privatizes the state's Medicaid, Buller has found the services he depends on may be getting cut back.

Is KanCare Working?

Abbie Fentress Swanson/Harvest Public Media / KCUR

Chasing The American Dream In Rural Kansas And Missouri

For many generations, meatpacking plants in Kansas City were a place where immigrants found a foothold in U.S. society. Now, these plants have moved to rural areas, and the children of immigrant and refugee workers face more challenges in getting an education and pursuing their dreams. Harvest Public Media asked young people in Noel, Mo. and Garden City, Kan. about their aspirations.

Alex Smith / KCUR

Tuesday night at The Drop in midtown Kansas City, Mo., tax opponents cheered their approval as Jackson County election results popped up on the big-screen television. A ballot measure to create a half cent sales tax for medical research was voted down by more than 5-to-1.

Former Kansas City Star writer Jim Fitzpatrick was a leader against the tax. He believed the vote signaled more than a rejection of a single tax proposal.

"I think it could be the dawning of a new era of public scrutiny of tax proposals in Kansas City," Fitzpatrick said.

Shane Linden / P.S. Linden Photography

How Haunted Houses Helped Develop The West Bottoms

In the weeks leading up to Halloween, thousands of people flocked to the historic West Bottoms neighborhood to tour Kansas City’s haunted houses. And while these houses are known as some of the oldest and most terrifying attractions in the country, you might not know that they’ve also been major contributors to the development of the former stockyards district. But not everyone thinks they should be part of the future of the West Bottoms.

user Mrd7b2 / Wikipedia

On November 5, Jackson County voters will decide whether to fund a translational medicine institute. A proposed half-cent sales tax would raise $800 million over the next 20 years to be divided among Children’s Mercy Hospital, St. Luke’s Hospital and the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.

Ten percent of the $800 million and 20 percent of profits the program generates would fund local public health initiatives.

Esther Honig / KCUR

Bistate Conversation About Youth Mental Health

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama called for a national conversation on mental health. Kansas City was chosen as one of ten cities to host a dialog in a program called Creating Community Solutions. On Saturday,  September 21,  two mayors and some 360 participants spent the day discussing how to improve mental health in metro Kansas City, particularly among young people. Hear voices of young people at the event.

Alex Smith / KCUR

It's early evening at the Bullers' house in Prairie Village, and the family gathers around the table. The Bullers kids, Alora and Christian, talk school while their mother, Anne, serves dinner.

Sylvia Maria Gross / KCUR

How One Kansas City Public School Is Improving Scores And Making Change

Visit James Elementary School, in Kansas City's historic Northeast neighborhood, which has seen substantial improvement in student test scores. So much so that the school recently landed on Missouri’s list of most-improved low-income schools. 

Alex Smith / KCUR

In his Overland Park, Kan. office, Dr. Rohit Krishna administers an eye test, but he isn't using big contraptions or wall charts. Krishna administers the entire test on his iPad using an app called The Eye Handbook. Krishna created The Eye Handbook about four years ago with other University of Missouri - Kansas City medical professors and residents. It is designed especially for use in countries that don't have a lot of medical services.

Matthew Long-Middleton / KCUR

21,000 Voter Registrations Stalled In Kansas

More than 20,000 people in Kansas have their voter registrations on hold, which means their vote won't count until the situation is resolved. About 80 percent of these stalled registrations happened at driver’s license offices and stem from a new law requiring people to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote.