Poison Centers in Danger

Budget cuts threaten the existence of poison centers.

America’s 55 poison centers suffered a federal funding cut of 36 percent in 2011. Further budget cuts at the state and federal level will make it difficult for poison centers to continue to provide life-saving services to the American people.

Why do poison centers matter?

Poison centers save lives and protect the health of Americans through direct medical services, data collection and monitoring, and health-care provider education. About four million calls come in to poison centers every year.

America’s poison centers provide direct patient health-care services at no cost to the public. Poison centers assess, triage, manage and follow up with people who are exposed to harmful substances. More than 70 percent of the people who call a poison center with a potential poisoning are treated at home, saving time and dollars by eliminating the expense of unnecessary trips to the hospital. In addition, if a patient does need hospitalization, health care provider consultation with a poison center decreases a patient’s length of stay in a hospital and decreases hospital costs.

Poison centers collect confidential data on the calls they receive. The data are used to identify emerging drug and substance abuse threats, food or medicine contamination, medication side effects, weapons of mass destruction threats, suicide trends, etc. This information helps local, state and national public health agencies quickly recognize threats to the public’s health, and helps health-care professionals provide effective treatments for their patients.

Poison centers also provide health-care providers with targeted education about patient treatment and management for known or suspected exposures to poisons. Physicians, pharmacists and nurses receive rigorous toxicology training and experience at poison centers.

Poison centers also support the nation’s response to public health emergencies. For example, poison centers managed and tracked exposures during the Gulf oil spill and fielded calls from health-care providers and the public during the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

Finally, poison centers help people prevent poisonings by educating at-risk groups, providing Poison Help materials, raising alarms about new poisoning threats, and working with the media to provide the most up-to-date information.

Do poison centers save money?

Several studies have determined that the nation’s poison centers save Americans more than $1.8 billion in medical costs and lost productivity each year. Furthermore, every $1 of public funding saves an estimated $13.39 in unnecessary health-care costs. Calls to poison centers keep the vast majority of callers out of hospital emergency rooms and decrease the length of stays for patients admitted to hospitals.

How are poison centers funded?

The total cost of a national poison center system is about $136 million; of that, only $17.1 million is provided by the federal government. The rest comes from state governments, hospitals and other nonfederal sources.

In April 2011, the federal government voted to cut funding for poison centers by about 25 percent; in December 2011, Congress again cut poison center funding by an additional 14 percent. These cuts came on top of budget cuts at the state level. Many poison centers have experienced a decrease in funding from all sources of more than 40 percent, making it difficult to continue providing services.

Unfortunately, poison center funding may be on the block again as federal and state governments develop upcoming budgets. Without this funding, most poison centers would become unstable and probably be forced to close.

What would happen if poison centers were forced to close?

Without access to poison centers, some people may incorrectly think a poison exposure isn’t serious and may not seek needed medical treatment. Others will go to emergency rooms for treatment rather than receive medical assistance over the phone and in their homes. In addition, more cases of poisoning may not be handled correctly in health-care facilities because health-care providers won’t have access to toxicological expertise.

Past experience has demonstrated that health-care costs would rise as more people sought help in emergency rooms. The state of Louisiana closed its poison center in 1988 to save money; the next year, there were 15,000 more emergency room visits for poisonings that cost an additional $1.4 million. In 1993, because of budget cuts, the Michigan poison center stopped taking calls from two of the three area codes it served. During the next four months, a major insurance company recorded a 35 percent increase in outpatient visits for suspected poisonings and a 16 percent increase in hospitalizations. Both Louisiana and Michigan have since restored poison center coverage.

Poison centers are a good deal for taxpayers, for the government, for health care facilities, for insurance companies, and for the public.

Support your local poison center by registering for the AAPCC Advocacy Network at www.capwiz.com/aapcc

Learn more about the value of America's poison center system by clicking here.

Find Your Local Poison Center

Poison centers offer free, private, confidential medical advice 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can reach your local poison center by calling 1-800-222-1222.

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