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Flatland on Kansas City PBS: A Year in Review Looking Back, and Ahead, at Some of Our Biggest Issues

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Above image credit: Flatland reporters, producers and host (from left to right) Mary Sanchez, Vicky-Diaz Camacho, D. Rashaan Gilmore, Cody Boston, Catherine Hoffman and Cami Koons on the set at Kansas City PBS. (Brad Austin | Flatland)
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Tonight on Kansas City PBS, Flatland’s Emmy-winning reporting team is looking back on some of the biggest issues we’ve covered over the past year. We’re also taking a look ahead at how these issues may unfold in 2023. Here’s a look back, and ahead.

Marijuana in Missouri

Earlier this year Missourians rallied for, and against, an adult-use marijuana program. The citizen initiated constitutional amendment passed with 53% of the popular vote in early November. 

Missouri became the 21st state to legalize recreational marijuana, but winning the vote is far from the end of the road. 

Starting this month, Amendment 3 went into effect and related industries began their scramble to meet its requirements. 

Why It Matters

Marijuana is projected to be a $52.6 billion industry (nationally) by 2026, according to MJ Biz Daily. Missouri now has a greater hand to play in the industry as a recreational market. But some folks are worried about who will get to play, and who will be shut out.

Others wonder when they can buy, or grow, legal weed, how it will be enforced and how it will affect their communities.

The Breakdown 

  • The Legal Missouri 2022 political action group gathered over 200,000 valid signatures to bypass the Missouri legislature and get Amendment 3 on the ballot, via the ballot initiative process
  • Most arguments against Amendment 3 came from groups and individuals who supported marijuana legalization, but feared the proposed amendment was too restrictive.
  • Medical license holders will have the opportunity to transition their licenses to “comprehensive licenses” to sell to adults 21 and older. Critics felt this would exclude new businesses from the market. 
  • Public consumption was decriminalized but not legalized. This parallels most state legalization laws. Driving while under the influence is still illegal under Amendment 3.
  • Missouri doesn’t have an automatic expungement process in place. 
  • Microbusiness licenses try to address equity issues by creating opportunities for those who have been most affected by marijuana prohibition. Some question the efficacy of these licenses because its holders can only compete with one another and are capped at the number of plants they can grow. 

What’s Happening

On Dec. 8, Amendment 3 officially went into effect

  • Adults 21 and older now can legally possess up to three ounces of marijuana. 
  • Courts in Missouri are obligated to begin expunging qualifying records. Some still worry if this will happen because of the logistical difficulties.
  • The Missouri NAACP came out against Amendment 3 before the election and has remained opposed to it. “One of the complaints that we had early on (was) that we didn’t understand how this was going to work,” Rod Chapel, the organization’s president, said of the automatic expungement. “We didn’t believe that it was going to be beneficial to many of the people who have suffered under the oppressive marijuana criminalization statutes.” 
  • Medical marijuana dispensaries and cultivators can apply to transition their current licenses into comprehensive licenses. Once awarded, they would be able to sell to any Missourian over 21. Critics say it’s giving opportunity to the wrong people. Proponents say it’s the quickest way to legal sales in Missouri. 
  • Updated rules for medical patients are now in effect. Medical cards are now valid for three years instead of just one. Patients can now buy up to six ounces per month. And patients have protections in the workplace and in child custody court. 
  • The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services created a new Division of Cannabis Regulation and is finalizing its complementary rules for the recreational program. 

What’s Next?

The constitutional amendment lists deadlines for its provisions, some as far out as 2025. 

  • February 2023: First legal sales in dispensaries. Personal cultivation (home grow) applications accepted. A chief equity advisor will be appointed to educate and promote the opportunities available to folks via the microbusiness licenses. 
  • June 2023: Microbusiness application instructions available. Marijuana misdemeanors must be expunged.
  • December 2023: Qualifying marijuana felonies must be expunged.
  • Check out the DHSS timeline for future marijuana deadlines.
  • Across the state line, Kansas lawmakers appear poised to pass a medical bill in the 2023 session. 

Chapel with the Missouri NAACP remains skeptical of expungement and the microbusiness licenses promised by the Missouri amendment. His organization will continue to watch and advocate as the recreational program develops. 

“The sad news is that there will be a lot more advocacy from the NAACP for equality, and justice,” Chapel said. “Amendment 3 did nothing to actually resolve any of those concerns.”

Abortion Rights

After Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June, the eyes of the nation turned to Kansas.

The state was the first to offer voters the chance to assert their views on reproductive access through a ballot measure. Nearly 60% of Kansans voted to uphold the legal right to an abortion under the state’s constitution.

Although the margin of victory was celebrated by advocates for reproductive rights, the August vote set the stage for pitched battles ahead. 

Why it Matters

National advocates puzzled over that fact that Kansans overwhelmingly voiced support for keeping abortion legal in the state, while also electing Kris Kobach attorney general.

A longtime opponent of legalized abortion, Kobach has vowed to find a way to readdress the issue in the state.

“This issue is not over,” Kobach told a meeting of a Wichita Pachyderm Club after the August vote, as reported in the Wichita Eagle. “The fight for life is going to continue.” 

The Breakdown

  • Five abortion clinics operate in Kansas, two in Overland Park, two in Wichita and one in Kansas City.
  • Abortions are increasingly “self-managed” with people taking pills to medicinally end a pregnancy. The method is effective until 11 weeks.
  • The pill mifepristone is used, which blocks the hormone progesterone. Up to half of all abortions in the U.S. involve the use of such pills.
  • Telemedicine is currently banned in Kansas. But an injunction has currently blocked that law, a shift that will allow for out-of-state doctors to advise patients in Kansas, including helping with a medication-induced abortion.
  • Telemedicine is expected to ease surging clinic caseloads, with more people seeking services in Kansas as surrounding states like Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma ban the procedure.

What’s Happening

  • Regulatory pressure will also continue from outside of Kansas.
  • A lawsuit was filed in November against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), challenging the agency’s authority in approving usage of abortion pills. The FDA approved the pills in 2000.
  • The suit, by Alliance Defending Freedom, argues that pregnancy is not an illness and that the pills do not offer a therapeutic remedy, but rather end the life of a baby.

What’s Next?

  • In Kansas, Kobach proposes an incremental plan for the Republican-led legislature to change how judges are placed on the state Supreme Court. Judges who are anti-abortion can then form a majority.
  • Others are watching to see how aggressively Kobach, as attorney general, monitors current laws that govern reproductive rights. Kansas has a gestational ban of 22 weeks, a 24-hour waiting period and parental consent is required for minors.
  • The Kansas legislature may also attempt to pass new laws affecting access or how clinics function.
  • Kansans For Life will hold the March For Life Jan. 24 in Topeka at various sites including the capitol.
  • In Missouri, planning is underway to put a ballot measure before Missouri voters to reinstate the right to an abortion.
  • The Reale Justice Network/MO-KAN BIPOC Reproductive Justice Coalition hopes to place a measure before Missouri voters in November 2023.
  • If successful, that might circumvent efforts by conservatives in the Missouri legislature who would like to alter the process of placing such measures before voters, raising the difficulty of doing so.

A Cautionary Tale 

Anti-abortion activists flooded Kansas and staged 46 days of protests during what became dubbed The Summer of Mercy in 1991.

The goal was shutting down the abortion clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller. Tiller became a target, in part, because he provided abortions later into pregnancy.

Defiant, Tiller continued his practice, aided by U.S. Marshalls and a court order restricting how far the activists could go in disrupting the medical office.

There were nearly 2,700 arrests.

Support for the anti-abortion movement has never subsided, although incidents like fire bombings and other criminal acts on clinics, did.

In May 2009, extremist Scott Roeder confronted Tiller in the foyer of a church where the doctor was serving as an usher and fired a fatal shot into his head. Tiller was wearing a protective vest, as he had for years.

Roeder confessed, telling law enforcement that he shot Tiller because “preborn children’s lives were in imminent danger.”

Roeder, a member of the anti-government group the Montana Freemen, was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life sentence.

Health Care in the Age of COVID

Earlier this year, health care workers told Flatland they were stretched too thin, citing two major issues – staff shortages and burnout. 

Today, health care workers say they are faring better but still struggle with residual burnout, the rapid increase in other upper respiratory illnesses, and short-staffed health systems.

Why it Matters

In the past few years, health care workers have borne the brunt of COVID-19’s effects, psychologically and professionally. Many felt unsupported and ill-equipped as the pandemic continued. 

  • Job vacancies have increased in key health care professional areas.
  • Staffing shortages affect the quality of patient care. This includes increased wait times for appointments or in emergency rooms, a delay in time-sensitive tests and growing medical mistrust. 
  • Job vacancies and staffing shortages are putting strain on pediatric centers across the country, which are seeing an overwhelming number of sick children and infants.

The Breakdown

  • At the height of the pandemic, hospital systems around the U.S. struggled to keep up with the pace of a quick-moving virus. 
  • In December 2021, some Kansas City hospitals were at capacity. Several local chief medical officers raised a red flag of what was to come.
  • Rural hospitals remain particularly vulnerable. They have limited staff, particularly nurses, to care for patients with more severe illness.

What’s Happening

Health care is seeing critical shortages among nurses, respiratory therapists, emergency room personnel and intensive care staffers. Health care facility expenses have also increased, an American Hospital Association report from Nov. 2, 2022 shows. Psychological factors are a major contributor. 

  • Burnout among medical professionals predated the COVID-19 pandemic, but has markedly increased. 
  • In 2021, 69% of family physicians reported having one symptom of burnout compared with 50% in 2020. Professionals who experience burnout are more likely to screen for depression, suicidal ideation and higher levels of fatigue.
  • Looming hospital closures, especially those in rural areas, pose risks for vulnerable community members such as folks with limited mobility or access, the elderly and those with chronic conditions. 
  • Dr. Michael Moncure, who was part of the Mid-America Regional Council’s (MARC) regional health care council, is concerned with two things: the triple threat of COVID, RSV and the flu hitting communities that are already fragile. And the need to recruit more health care workers – whether abroad or local – to Kansas City area hospitals.
  • Dr. Carlton Abner at Kansas City University (KCU) has said medical school applications are still lower than pre-pandemic levels. 
  • Wellness and resilience programs focus on equipping health care students to handle workplace stress and trauma. Nearly 500 students were a part of KCU’s Thrive two-day program.   
  • The “tripledemic” of RSV, flu and COVID-19 is putting more strain on hospital systems, particularly pediatrics.

What’s Next?

  • Although health care workers have experienced burnout at alarming rates, a new study shows that some (around 30%) prioritized personal wellness and mental health, said Dr. Samuel Ofei-Dodoo, who led research on burnout among medical professionals.  
  • Bedside health care workers like Lauren Hermann say their pandemic wounds are now like scars. The pain has numbed over but is still visible. Hermann has made it a point to protect her mental health and personal time, even if that means to decline a shift that will pay her more. 
  • There remains a need for the hospital systems to prioritize and bolster support networks for their staff. 
  • Medical school graduates are helping to fill in the gaps left during the early part of 2020, but more health care workers are still needed. 
  • From a financial perspective, studies predict more hospital closures and bankruptcies. This ripple effect will be most felt by rural hospitals. Underfunded hospital systems will struggle to treat cascading chronic illnesses that were left untreated during early 2020 and on.

Houseless in Kansas City

Unhoused Kansas Citians have seen numerous housing plans roll out over the past year with varying degrees of success. Of the many proposed solutions to Kansas City’s housing issue, the most ambitious is the Zero KC plan to end homelessness. Despite the developments, some remain frustrated as they see initiatives come and go while they remain on the streets and vulnerable to camp sweeps. 

Here’s a brief overview of what the city has been doing since this Flatland episode first aired. 

Why it Matters

  • The Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness conducts a yearly point in time count. The latest count estimated that there are roughly 1,800 unhoused people in Kansas City. 
  • Living outside is dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that “homelessness is closely connected to declines in physical and mental health,” and also identified homelessness as a public health issue
  • Service providers are reporting that there is a bottleneck of folks who are ready to leave the shelter system but are unable to find affordable housing, which can trap them in a revolving door of homelessness.  

The Breakdown

  • Kansas City is in a trial-and-error period when it comes to housing solutions. 
  • The city has been working with service providers and people experiencing homelessness to roll out a series of initiatives to alleviate (and eventually eliminate) homelessness in Kansas City.

What’s Happening

It’s been an eventful year for housing and homelessness in Kansas City. Here are a few of the highlights:. 

  • The city hired Josh Henges  as its first homelessness prevention coordinator. 
  • Zero KC emerged as an ambitious plan to end homelessness. The plan is is designed to increase street outreach, make emergency shelters accessible, create a consistent extreme weather plan, and collaborate with service providers.  
  • The City Council’s Unhoused Task Force worked to suggest housing solutions and policies. The task force is made of people experiencing homelessness, City Council members, and service providers. 
  • Kansas City created a plan to sell blighted land bank homes for $1, so long as the buyer promised to bring the house up to code and then rent the home at an affordable rate. The Flatland team reported on this and found that nonprofit leaders thought the program was unrealistic and financially impossible for many.  
  • A local Days Inn hotel has been transformed into Lotus Care House, which is now an operating, low barrier homeless shelter. They are currently housing about 10 people while they continue renovating, and hope to increase their numbers as more rooms are ready. 
  • The city has allocated $8 million from a housing trust fund to create more affordable housing units.  
  • Kansas City established an ordinance that requires homeless camps to receive a 48-hour warning before being swept. The ordinance also requires the presence of service providers and minimal police presence. Sources told the Flatland team that these rules are not being consistently enforced, and 48 hours is not nearly enough time for them to arrange housing or provide necessary services to someone being relocated. 

What’s Next?

  • The fate of pallet homes remains up in the air as neighborhoods push back against hosting one of the proposed tiny home villages. 
  • Lotus Care House Executive Director Alfredo Palacol said they are continuing to renovate and provide increasing amounts of shelter for the chronically homeless.
  • The city’s Extreme Weather Plan is officially in action as they work with service providers to provide shelter beds and keep folks out of the cold. This program runs through Feb. 28. 

D. Rashaan Gilmore, host of the Flatland television show on Kansas City PBS.

Tonight on Kansas City PBS

Join “Flatland” host D. Rashaan Gilmore and the Flatland reporting team as they discuss the year in review. Watch the show tonight at 7 p.m. on Kansas City PBS.

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS. Catherine Hoffman covers community affairs and culture for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Cody Boston is a video producer for Kansas City PBS. 

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