Yael T. Abouhalkah

Use this ‘Reality Meter’ to analyze medical research tax

Updated: 2013-10-24T19:25:35Z

By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH

The Kansas City Star

Supporters of the $800 million medical research tax on Jackson County’s Nov. 5 ballot are using some troubling arguments to pitch their case.

Let’s use the “Reality Meter” to analyze them, with 10 representing the worst score.

First, to repeat from last week: I oppose the half-cent sales tax. It would last 20 years and most dollars would flow to three institutions (including privately run St. Luke’s and Children’s Mercy hospitals) doing translational research aimed at finding ways to treat and cure diseases.

My reasoning is that a large sales tax levied in one county is not the proper way to fund this effort. Also, sales taxes have more traditional and worthwhile uses financing public improvements.

Supporters claim the tax will:

• Develop medical cures and discoveries. Reality Meter: 6

This is a key contention, one that should be easy to back up with voluminous evidence. St. Luke’s and Children’s Mercy have invested tens of millions of dollars in medical research in the past. But their inability to provide the public with a lengthy list of “cures” they have developed speaks to how difficult that really is.

• Allocate 20 percent of net profits of new products or cures to Jackson County. Reality Meter: 7

Jackson County legislators found this idea particularly appealing because it promises money down the road for the public. But the definitions of “net profit” and how the money would be used remain squishy.

If current medical research funding had led to a lot of new products and cures that had spun off hefty net profits, wouldn’t we be hearing a lot about that during the $1.5 million ad campaign? We’re not, which suggests even supporters recognize the peril of this promise.

• Finance something similar to the Johnson County Education and Research Triangle. Reality Meter: 8

Yes, the triangle is financed by a sales tax. But it’s only one-eighth of a cent, or 25 percent of the size of Jackson County’s tax.

Also, most of that money is being spent on buildings for three public institutions: Kansas State University, the University of Kansas and the University of Kansas Medical Center. So far, medical research is a small part of the triangle’s actual mission.

• Build on our collaborative approach to life sciences. Reality Meter: 5

It’s true that the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute has 10 stakeholder institutions on both sides of the state line. And the University of Kansas Cancer Center won National Cancer Institute designation in 2012, partly based on regional partnerships.

Unfortunately, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research — perhaps the best-known and best-financed member — dropped out of the life sciences alliance. Also, multi-month efforts to forge new teaching and research relationships between St. Luke’s Health System and KU Medical Center fell apart several years ago.

• Create hundreds of new jobs. Reality Meter: 3

The tax will provide large salaries to leading researchers and their staffs, creating only a few hundred jobs. Still, getting smart, highly paid people to live in this area is a very good thing.

• Promote research that’s tough to finance other ways. Reality Meter: 9

Tax backers say there’s not enough money to create a new foundation for translational research and that falling federal funds can’t be counted on. However, if the tax is rejected, that means proponents will have to redouble efforts to get money from local foundations and philanthropists plus the National Institutes of Health.

In fact, this is exactly how it’s done at dozens of other U.S. hospitals and universities involved with translational research.

Putting the burden on only a portion of local residents is unfair and costly.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/YaelTAbouhalkah. He appears on “Ruckus” at 7 p.m. Thursday on KCPT, Channel 19.

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