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California’s Poison Control System May Be Forced To Close

Above: Dr. Rick Clark, director of the San Diego division of California’s Poison Control System, says the service may have to shut down in November.

Audio

Aired 9/18/09

California's Poison Control system is on life support. The 24-7 operation lost half of its funding in the new state budget. Poison control officials say if they don't find an additional $6 million soon, the system will have to close.

California's Poison Control system is on life support. The 24-7 operation lost half of its funding in the new state budget. Poison control officials say if they don't find an additional $6 million soon, the system will have to close.

Dr. Lee Cantrell and Kathe Slagal work the phones at the Poison Control Center site in San Diego.
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Above: Dr. Lee Cantrell and Kathe Slagal work the phones at the Poison Control Center site in San Diego.

"Poison center: Okay, how old is your granddaughter? And how long ago did this happen?"

At the San Diego division of California's Poison Control System, Dr. Lee Cantrell works the phones. He's the managing director, and he doesn't usually work in the trenches.

"We have one person on vacation, one person on bereavement leave, and then we had a sick call," says Cantrell. "And we have no other resources to back-fill any type of emergencies. And so, I'm filling in on the hotlines this morning," says Cantrell. He says with funding cuts, the Poison Control System hasn't been able to fill open positions. As a result, answering calls within 20 seconds is no longer the norm. The average caller now has to wait around a minute and a half.

"Now ordinarily, it could be, you know, if it's an emergency, we certainly try our best to manage things as efficiently as possible," Cantrell says. "But there's only so much you can do with the given resources. Is that you? Yeah, that's me."

The California Poison Control System has four sites in Sacramento, San Francisco, Fresno, and San Diego. Each location is staffed by pharmacists, nurses, and specially trained technicians. The network gets more 300,000 calls a year, or around 900 a day. Many of the calls are from frantic parents, worried about what drugs or cleaning products their child just got into.

"Okay, how old is the child? And how long ago did this get into her eyes?"

The state budget crisis forced lawmakers to cut half of Poison Control's funding this year. System officials are trying to get the federal government to pick up the slack before November. Dr. Rick Clark is medical director of the San Diego site at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest.

"The funding that we're getting from the state won't be sufficient enough to keep us open by that point, and if we don't get that matched funding, we won't have enough money to continue past November," Clark points out. He concedes that a lot of health programs have been cut this year, but he believes the poison control system is unique. Clark says each dollar spent on poison control saves the health care system $7.

"I think this one saves lives, and without a doubt, saves visits to emergency rooms that are already overcrowded," Clark says. "So I think this just makes sense from a lot of perspectives, and eliminating it, does not seem very smart."

About 5 percent of the system's calls are from law enforcement. Police officers need help to identify prescription drugs they find on suspects. Nearly 20 percent of the calls come from hospital emergency room staff looking for advice.

Scripps Mercy Hospital ER Dr. Valerie Norton says she frequently calls poison control to get advice on how to treat a patient.
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Above: Scripps Mercy Hospital ER Dr. Valerie Norton says she frequently calls poison control to get advice on how to treat a patient.

Dr. Valerie Norton works in the ER at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest.

"We have lots of minor cases, where we call the poison control system and say, this child ate part of a poinsettia bush, do I need to be concerned? We've had patients who have tried to commit suicide using pesticides, which can be very scary and life-threatening," says Norton. "Some of the medications that we use as antidotes are not used very often, and we're not very familiar with them. And we need a lot of help and guidance knowing how to dose them correctly."

But that help and guidance costs money, and Clark says neither hospitals nor law enforcement pay for the service. He says if the operation closes down, California's health care system will feel it.

"We figure there's well over 100,000 calls that we get every year, that without a poison control center will be diverted either through the 9-1-1 ambulance system, or directly to hospitals and clinics," Clark says.

Layoff notices to poison control employees have already gone out. Later this year, California could become the only state in the country without a poison control system.

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