KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The next mayor of Kansas City will be facing a number of tricky public health issues. KCUR's Elana Gordon recently sought out Mike Burke and Sly James to find out what each would do to improve the health of the city and its residents.
Kansas City is a place where about one sixth of the population is uninsured, where at least a quarter of all deaths are premature, where one in three residents is obese. But what exactly can a mayor do about any of this?
"The mayor obviously becomes the bully pulpit for the city in many ways," says Dr. Rex Archer, director of the Kansas City Missouri Health Department.
Dr. Archer says the mayor has the power to really advocate for better health and set the example.
Take New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who's made a name for himself as a strong public health advocate. He's pushed for things like calorie counts on fast food menus, taxes on sodas, and smoking bans.
But the two candidates running for mayor of Kansas City - Mike Burke and Sly James - say a lot of those policies are beyond the control of what the mayor can do here, given the city's weak-mayor form of governance. Both agree that advocating at the state and federal level for more public health and health care funding is a key responsibility of the mayor.
Last Monday, the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City - the same organization which funds health reporting on KCUR - pushed the two candidates to spell out their health agendas during a debate at the Gem Theater (I was also part of a panel of journalists that asked some questions).
Burke and James both said promoting good health is a priority, and that it can happen through a variety of local infrastructure and social policies. Burke said he'd look for more ways to encourage outdoor exercise.
"I'm a good walker. I'm a big fan of our trails system," Burke said. "I think developing a comprehensive system of trails in our city could be one of the best efforts we could do."
James said the city should expand programs that get kids moving and eating better.
"There should be a community garden at each school, where children work in the field and tend their vegetables," James said.
Burke loves garden initiatives, too. He said he'd work to get a grocery store back in the Linwood Shopping Center.
"We have sometimes several communities in Kansas city, and one part can get green groceries and one part can't," Burke said.
When it comes to local health funding, the city administers a health levy, which provides funds to Truman Medical Center, the city's ambulance services, safety net clinics, Children's Mercy, and the health department. Residents approved the tax decades ago and then voted to increase it in 2005. Gerard Grimaldi, with Truman Medical Center, says the funding is vital.
"Primarily we use it to help provide care to folks in Kansas City who are uninsured," Grimaldi said.
The 2005 portion of the levy will sunset in two years. James and Burke both said they'd back a renewal of it. James said he'd want to review the levy, like he would any other tax. Burke agreed, and also said he has some concerns about how the city allocates the funding.
Supporting education and prevention initiatives were common themes in the two candidates' platforms. James said he'd back prenatal and early childhood programs, which establish healthy habits early on, during critical stages of development. He said he'd stress violence prevention programs that intervene in conflicts before they escalate, and he'd employ people with mediation skills in the parks and recreation department.
"Instead of making sure that we just have somebody who can roll the ball down the court, let's be sure we have people who can deal with conflict resolution and can teach kids at an early age how to resolve conflict," said James.
Burke said he's a strong supporter of stop-violence and anti-bullying initiatives, as well as general nutrition and health education geared towards kids.
When asked about the city's tobacco policies, both candidates said they'd support efforts to remove the exemption of casinos from the city's smoking ban. Burke recalled being on the city council in the mid '80s, when the city enacted an earlier clean-air ordinance.
"It was very controversial then," Burke said. "I think what we did then and what has been done since then, the medical evidence has certainly proven we were right."
James and Burke both said they'd also back a statewide smoking ban.
Now, as for the literal health of the two candidates? Well, at the end of Monday's debate, James jokingly accused Burke of giving him a cold.
"But I'm giving it back to him [Burke]," James said. "I hope it festers and explodes on March 22. He'll be in bed."
"That's unkind," Burke said, while laughing.
"It was in jest, partially," said James, while laughing...and coughing.
Regardless of who's sneezing and wheezing on election day, and regardless of who actually wins, improving the health of city residents appears to be a more defined part of the next mayor's plan.
Funding for health care coverage on KCUR has been provided by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.
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