Mr. Yuk in danger | Loss of federal funding may be final blow to poison control centers including Washington’s
By MARY L. GRADY
Mercer Island Reporter Editor
March 9, 2011 · Updated 10:00 AM
Everyone knows Mr. Yuk, whose garish green face reminds us poisons not only don’t taste good, but they can be deadly. Mr. Yuk is the symbol of our nation’s Poison Control Centers. It is the place to call for life-saving help or information about everything from accidental exposure to toxic cleaners to prescription mix-ups. But now, like many others, Mr. Yuk may lose his job.
As part of a virtual tidal wave of budget cutting, House lawmakers in Congress have slashed $27 million out of a $29 million request to continue federal funding to help fund the nation’s poison control centers.
The cuts, if approved, will have a chilling effect on the ability of people to find out about hazardous substances that inadvertently find their way onto the skin, interfere with other medications or into the mouths of children, adults and even pets.
In light of the trillions of dollars of debt now faced by the nation, the amount begin saved is minute.
Calls to a poison control center keep people out of hospital emergency rooms, advocates say, reducing costs to individuals, hospitals and insurance companies. They save lives.
Dozens of Islanders used the free service last year.
In 2010, 133 calls were made by Islanders to the Washington Poison Center (WAPC). According to data from the agency, just under 100 were regarding human exposure cases; 27 were information calls, and the remaining handful were regarding animal exposure cases.
Of the human exposure calls, the calls were split evenly regarding prescription drugs and non-pharmaceuticals with people calling about accidental exposure to toxic household or yard products or to talk about improper or accidental pharmaceutical use.
All but five percent of the cases handled by the WAPC were managed at the caller’s site, without the need to seek further medical assistance.
Of the 98 human exposure cases handled, just five were referred by the WAPC to a hospital for treatment.
A recent story in the “New York Times” points out the cost savings of keeping people out of the hospital.
“In three-quarters of all cases, the centers are able to provide treatment advice that does not require a visit to a hospital or a doctor, saving tens of millions of dollars in medical costs.
“While a single visit to an emergency room can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars (often paid for by the government), a call to a poison center costs the government only $30 or $40,” the story said. “A study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology estimated that the poison centers saved the state of Arizona alone $33 million a year. The state of Louisiana eliminated its centers in the 1980s, but restored them when it realized how much money they saved.”
According to Jim Williams, the director of WAPC in Olympia, “the sky is not yet falling”, but the loss of the federal monies will leave them and other agencies without much to cover the loss.
“It will be very, very difficult to make up the difference,” he said.
The majority of the poison centers will close, he said. The director does not want to even consider that the Washington Poison Center could close.
At present, the WAPC handles 75,000 calls each year regarding potential human poisoning, animals or for information on prescription drugs and interactions. Williams said that, surprisingly, between 15 or 17 percent of calls — at least 8,000 — last year were from hospitals across the state, which were calling to check on possible drug interactions, overdoses and other issues for patients who were in their care.
“Federal funding provides 20 percent of our funding. But these new potential cuts are in addition to a 37 percent cut made by the state to us in July of 2009,” Williams explained. The agency made big changes then.
“The reason we survived is because of how we are set up as a nonprofit, so we are able to look for funds elsewhere.”
Of the 20 employed by the agency, 16 are on the phones. The center is staffed 24/7 with trained professionals who are either doctors or nurses, or other trained individuals, such as a M.D. toxicologist on call.
The service is free and open to anyone. There is language assistance for those who do not speak English. The phone number is 1-800-222-1222.Contact Mercer Island Reporter Editor Mary L. Grady at firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 232-1215 ext. 1050.