County Executive played key role in launching OHKCE

Frank White was persuasive advocate for vaccinations and health screenings

The Our Healthy Kansas City Eastside program has spread across traditionally underserved areas in Kansas City, bringing COVID-19 vaccinations and a range of preventive health screenings to residents who often don’t have easy access to such services.

As the $5 million program reaches more and more residents, it’s good to recall that it started with an idea in the office of Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr., who grew up on the Eastside.

“My staff and I talked about being able to provide assistance for folks who are really affected by COVID-19,” White said. “From the onset, it was the Eastside of Kansas City, Black residents who were the first to contract COVID, the first to go to the hospital and the first to die from this dreaded disease.”

Given evidence of vaccine hesitancy, and the need for better access to health screenings for conditions such as diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure, White envisioned a comprehensive program that could really make an impact on the Eastside. To make that happen, he said, it made sense to partner with UMKC and its affiliates such as University Health (formerly Truman Medical Centers) and Children’s Mercy.

“We had an awareness of Dr. Jannette Berkley-Patton’s work with the Health Equity Institute,” White said, referring to a chancellor’s initiative that pairs UMKC researchers with community groups to develop sustainable programs that address gaps in health care access and outcomes. Those efforts led by Berkley-Patton, a UMKC professor of biomedical and health informatics, recently included COVID testing financed with a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“And we had conversations with Chancellor [C. Mauli] Agrawal, who had offered to provide any assistance the university could to ensure the safety and health of our community,” White said.

The plan for OHKCE was drawn up, using money the county received  from the federal CARES Act, and White went to work reassuring the nine members of the Jackson County Legislature that it was a good idea.

“This is a unique project for the county,” White said. “We had never invested this amount of money in a program specifically designed to address health care inequities and disparities in our urban communities. It was only natural the legislators would have a lot of questions.”

In the end the questions were answered, and the legislators unanimously approved OHKCE.

“That became an exciting day for me and an exciting day for Jackson County,” White said. “I was tired of hearing of the health disparities affecting the minority community, of lower life expectancies in some ZIP codes, and seeing family and friends deal with the disparities. I said it’s time to do something.”

White also wanted the effort to include preventive screenings along with the vaccines, and held out hope of making access to better preventive care a lasting part of life on the Eastside. Such screenings have a personal spot in White’s heart.

“I lost both of my parents to colon cancer,” said White, who wonders whether things could have been different with better screenings. “They had good health care coverage, but back then you didn’t go to the doctor until something was wrong,” White said, so their cancers were not discovered until they were quite advanced.

“That’s why I’m really excited about this program giving people the opportunity to take some preventive measures and give them a better heads up than what my parents had,” he said. “I’m grateful that UMKC and University Health have partnered with us in this program,” White added, “and for the different community partners who have really gone out and got on board to put this program out into the community.”