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An unlikely antidote for budget shortfalls

Cutting poison control is bound to prove costly.

By Kevin C. Osterhoudt,

Fred M. Henretig,

and Allison Muller

A healthy Delaware Valley 17-year-old recently made an impulsive decision to swallow a large number of prescription pills and then told a friend she had done so in a text message. The teenager arrived at a local community hospital in a coma, and then her heart stopped beating. A team of doctors and nurses tried to revive her without success.

But just as the girl was about to be pronounced dead, a quick-thinking anesthesiologist made a call to the local Poison Control Center, which is based at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The center's experts worked quickly with the doctors, developing a plan to try a novel antidote, and, miraculously, the girl's heart was restarted. She remains well to this day.

Consider how much the Poison Control Center's services were worth to that team of doctors and nurses, to the girl's family, and to the girl herself. And this remarkable story is just one of many examples of the value of the center, which handled 60,000 other human poisoning cases that year.

The regional Poison Control Center has answered calls like that one for 25 years, serving six million citizens in 23 eastern Pennsylvania counties and the state of Delaware. Poison centers save lives, and they also save money by preventing costly hospital visits. But now this important safety net is in danger of being lost.

The House of Representatives voted this month to cut federal funding to poison centers by 93 percent, a proposal now in the hands of the Senate. Meanwhile, Gov. Corbett's recently proposed budget would completely eliminate state funding for Pennsylvania's two poison centers.

With health-care costs spiraling upward, Poison Control Centers serve as an antidote to emergency-room crowding and costs. More often than not, a call to a Poison Control Center - at an average cost of about $30 - will prevent an emergency-room visit that would cost many hundreds of dollars.

The savings that can be credited to the center well exceed the government investment. It's been estimated that every dollar the government spends on poison control services saves $7 to $14 in other health-care costs.

Unfortunately, poisonings are not rare. In 2005, poisoning was the second most common kind of fatal injury in Pennsylvania, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, nearly 82 people die each day as a result of unintentional poisoning, while another 1,941 are treated for poisoning in emergency departments, the CDC reports.

In all, the nation's 57 poison control centers receive more than four million calls a year. The system allows anyone who may have been exposed to a poison to get help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, by calling 1-800-222-1222.

There is no national poison center. Dialing that toll-free number in the Philadelphia region connects callers with the center at CHOP, where specially trained nurses, pharmacists, and doctors staff the poison-control line at all times.

The Poison Control Center also participates in regional and national surveillance for toxic epidemics. During a severe snowstorm, for example, our center recognized that people were being poisoned by carbon monoxide as a result of idling engines with snow-clogged exhaust pipes. Prompt public-service announcements and other efforts to get the word out may have saved dozens of lives throughout the Northeast.

Poison control centers also play an important role in our early-warning system for potential terrorist incidents. They have the ability to quickly recognize unusual casualties in diverse locations, and to offer lifesaving advice to teams responding to attacks involving dangerous, unfamiliar poisons.

Philadelphia's Poison Control Center would not survive the proposed cuts to its federal or state funding. So it's time for our representatives to think about its true value to the region.