PORTLAND, Ore. - For Oregon, Alaska and much of Nevada, the
Oregon Poison Center is the first line of defense for accidental
and intentional poisonings. It also provides invaluable,
hard-to-find information and expertise for physicians and emergency
workers treating poisoned patients, researchers and the public.
But the poison center is scheduled to shut its doors at the end
of this month, following a national trend of centers crippled or
closed by budget cuts. Oregon Health & Sciences University is
cutting the program due to reduced state funding and Medicaid
Officials estimate closing the center could cost up to seven
times more in unnecessary medical measures than it currently takes
to run the $1.35 million operation.
Established in 1978, the Oregon Poison Center has a free 24-hour
hot line staffed by seven toxicologists and 20 registered nurses
from its Portland base at OHSU. The center fielded almost 70,000
calls in 2002.
About 14 percent of those calls came from Alaska and 11 counties
in northern Nevada, where the center has contracts to provide
poison help and education. Neither state has its own poison control
center, as their small populations wouldn't justify a full-time,
fully staffed operation, said Sandy Giffin, director of the Oregon
Poison Center.
Dr. Guy Gansert, medical director of the Reno, Nev.-based Washoe
Health System, said the health services network relies solely on
the Oregon Poison Center for expert poison advice.
"They've done such a great job for us (that) we haven't gone
out and explored other control centers for some time," Gansert
said. "Most of the service could be provided anywhere, but it
makes it a little nicer when the toxicologist can come down and
The Oregon center began offering its services out of state in
1994 to maintain operations, Giffin said. Last year, it received
$180,000 from the two states.
OHSU provides $1.28 million of the center's regular budget, the
Legislature $90,000. A federal grant allocates further funds for
poison prevention and education programs.
Now, the university is unable to support the poison center
without sacrificing other programs, Giffin said.
Similar situations exist throughout the nation, said Rose Ann
Soloway, associate director of the American Association of Poison
Control Centers in Washington, D.C.
In Hershey, Pa., the Penn State Poison Center closed June 15
when its host institution, the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center,
cut off funding.
That's a risky move, Soloway said. In 1988, the Louisiana Drug
and Poison Information Center in Monroe, La., shut down for nine
months due to budget worries. When it reopened, she said, the state
found the cost of rerouting calls tripled that of operation.
Giffin estimated the Oregon Poison Center saves about $7 in
unnecessary health care costs for every dollar spent. The center
spends about $24 to handle a poison exposure call, compared to the
national average of $44.84, and uses nurses instead of pharmacists
to save money.
Because the Oregon Poison Center handles most of its calls
entirely by telephone, Giffin said, it saves money that would
otherwise be spent calling 9-1-1, dispatching an ambulance,
transporting victims to the hospital and treating them in the
emergency room.
To salvage the poison center, Rep. Rob Patridge, R-Medford, is
sponsoring a bill that would appropriate 9-1-1 funds. Otherwise,
Patridge said, "It's going to burden not only the 9-1-1 system but
the emergency services and medical systems as well."
House Bill 2709 is currently before the Legislature's Ways and
Means Committee.
Without the center and its toll-free number, poison victims
would need to seek emergency services or physicians to handle those
concerns. Most of those aren't readily equipped to answer
toxicology questions.
"The most worrisome thing is, there are people (exposed to
poison) who will say, 'I don't know. I'll just wait and see what
happens,"' Giffin said. "But when symptoms occur, there's already
a problem. The damage is being done."
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(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)