Barbara Shelly

Jackson County sales tax for research should be judged fairly

Updated: 2013-10-06T23:21:00Z

By BARBARA SHELLY

The Kansas City Star

For supporters, the Jackson County research tax measure is a forward-looking attempt to position this region as a leader in an emerging channel of research that will save lives, make medicine better and more cost-effective, and attract lots of money and smart people.

For its harshest critics, the half-cent sales tax proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot is a money grab by area elites to help institutions that already overpay their executives.

One ballot measure, two spins. I prefer the first one.

Civic and health care leaders are right to make a push for translational research, which is the hard work that builds on initial scientific discoveries to turn knowledge into products and protocols for medicine.

It is a field ready to take off, propelled by the use of “big data” in medical research, by a hunger for therapies to ease the ravages of disease and aging, and by a search for cost savings in health care. The end game of translational research isn’t always a pricey drug; it can be the knowledge that an expensive medicine may be ineffective for many patients, or that an over-the-counter product can be as useful as a prescription drug.

Kansas City already has an anchor in basic biomedical research in the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. And the region has a core of academic and hospital researchers who have made names for themselves with important studies that have led to better methods of treating patients.

At St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, for instance, a team directed by John Spertus has developed a protocol for personalizing angioplasty treatments to obtain better medical outcomes and reduce over-treatment. At Children’s Mercy Hospital, Stephen Kingsmore and others are refining DNA-analyzing techniques that can lead to life-saving treatments for children with rare medical conditions.

A ramp-up of translational research is a natural for this region. The question is how to fund it.

Critics have portrayed the sales tax request as a greedy cop-out. How dare these people ask citizens to pay a half cent on purchases to raise money that will mostly be channeled into research at two hospitals (Children’s Mercy and St. Luke’s) and the University of Missouri-Kansas City?

But really, why not? All the backers of the tax are doing is asking. And, OK, spending a bundle of campaign money. But voters are free, as always, to decide yes or no.

I have listened to supporters describe the extensive deliberations that proceeded the sales tax request. If there was another way to create a steady revenue stream large enough to convince top-flight researchers to locate in Kansas City, I think the initiative would be rolling by now.

But efforts to fund bioscience with state money have run aground in Missouri. The region has deep-pocketed foundations, which are funding some of the medical research currently taking place. But it’s unreasonable to expect they will drop long-term agendas that are doing a lot of good things and pivot wholesale into translational research.

The appeal of a tax is its reliability. For the length of the proposed sales tax — 20 years — Jackson County would raise about $40 million a year to hire doctors and researchers and fund the intricate studies that end up creating the right medicine for a rare disease, or a better course of care for a common affliction. The ballot measure is heavy on safeguards to ensure the money is spent transparently and not for other purposes.

There’s no question the proposal is unusual. It asks voters to invest in an economic development program and a worthy cause. But it doesn’t present a tangible reward, like repaved streets or a better zoo. Voters will have to think carefully about whether authorizing an additional half-cent sales tax now will get in the way of later initiatives, such as commuter rail.

Some objections to the measure have been intentionally polarizing. The executives of St. Luke’s and Children’s Mercy make big salaries. The hospitals have spent a lot of money on buildings. True. But change those situations, and you still don’t come up with a fund large enough to make Kansas City a research hub that will attract people who are focused on changing the world.

Kansas City’s civic community is often criticized for a failure to lead. Give leaders credit in this case for coming up with the right focus. Translational medicine is a great goal for the region. The sales tax proposal deserves at least to be judged on its merits and not on distractions.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to bshelly@kcstar.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/bshelly.

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