By Jeff Fox

Jackson County voters go to the polls Tuesday to decide on what proponents call a once-in-a-generation chance to transform the metro economy with a major push into translational medical research, bringing investment, growth and jobs.

“We think this is an idea whose time has come,” David Westbrook, a senior vice president at Children’s Mercy Hospital, said when the half-cent sales tax proposal for translational medicine was unveiled in early August.

Opponents aren’t buying it, calling sales taxes regressive, saying relatively few medical research projects pay off and claiming that some of the money raised would be funneled away from Jackson County, perhaps to Johnson County. Jackson County would pay, they say, but any benefits would be hard to keep here.

“This is venture capital for private hospitals, and it’s your tax dollars,” said Dr. Brad Bradshaw during a forum two weeks ago in Independence.

The half-cent tax – Question 1 on Tuesday’s ballot – would raise about $40 million a year for 20 years, and the money would go primarily to three organizations that would significantly add to their translational research, hiring new teams of top-flight researchers from around the country.

This is the research that fills the gap between basic research, which suggests what’s medically possible, and the actual development of a new drug, device or therapy. For example, proponents say, with a rare disease not responding to the usual treatments, it can make sense to map the patient’s entire genome and then zero in on the problem – and fashion a cure – at the genetic level.

“That’s translational research. There’s a gap here,” said L. Patrick James, senior medical partner of Quest Diagnostics. It’s the sort of research big pharmaceutical companies generally won’t pay for, looking instead for the next top-selling drug, proponents say.

The idea is to capitalize on what three local health systems do well. Children’s Mercy, with its emphasis on pediatrics, would get half of the money. St. Luke’s Health System, strong in cardio-vascular research, would get 20 percent. The University of Missouri-Kansas City, with its variety of medical programs, would get 20 percent. The remaining 10 percent would go to a new institute, in part governed by local elected officials, that would give grants for translational research.

In addition to the economic benefits of new jobs and the new companies that would be formed as research breakthroughs come, advocates say the proposal would mean better health in Kansas City, which has relatively high rates of obesity, smoking, diabetes and other problems.

“This is big. This is transformational for Kansas City,” said Dr. Wayne O. Carter, president and CEO of the Kansas City Life Sciences Institute.

The three big organizations getting most of the money are concentrated in the Hospital Hill/Plaza area of Kansas City. In addition, the Hall family has pledged $75 million for the new institute’s building, which would be on top of the Children’s Mercy parking garage on Hospital Hill. That proximity helps the sharing of ideas and collaboration that proponents say in necessary for research breakthroughs, but opponents have seized on that as unbalanced.

Why are only those spending their money in Jackson County being asked to pay for this, opponents ask, when the benefits would spill across the entire area? They also ask, what’s to keep these start-up companies from leaving the county? A stream of fliers has gone out in the mail, and at least one hints at Jackson County tax dollars going to Mission Hills.

Opponents also are skeptical about the 20 percent of net profits from any new drug or device coming back to the county, which would use that money for indigent care and other community health needs. They argue that each research project is a long shot. Carter says that’s why researchers need to select a range of promising projects, with the full realizations that the tax lasts only 20 years and they have that amount of time to make the institute self-sufficient. Proponents also point out that the University of Florida had a key role in the development of Gatorade – the school’s mascot is a Gator – and that it has reaped financial benefits ever since.

Among other criticisms, opponents say sales taxes hit the poor the hardest and say sales taxes are generally reserved for basic government functions such as parks, streets and public safety. Blue Springs Mayor Carson Ross, whose city is asking its voters for a half-cent parks tax on Tuesday, said he’s neutral on the translational medicine tax, but points out that sales taxes are “our number one source of revenue.”

Opponents stress that medical research is vital, but said this is the wrong approach.

“We don’t believe taxpayer dollars should be used to fund these private hospitals,” said Bradshaw.