Illinois could become the first state in the nation without a poison control center, even though it saves the state $52 million a year with a budget of just $4.2 million, according to its director.
Poison control centers have been a lifeline for parents and caregivers since their inception in the 1950s. In fact, Illinois opened the first such center in the country.
But caregivers aren’t the only people who dial the 1-800 number in panicked moments. Healthcare professionals also turn to the centers when presented with patients who may have been poisoned.
The state's only remaining poison control center—other states have several—operates with only 26 employees. Hotline staffers are either nurses or pharmacists and they are specially trained in toxicology. But in Illinois, which has grabbed national headlines for its budget woes, funding has dried up. The center has lost $1.4 million in funding from the state and federal governments since 2009 and is operating at a loss of half a million dollars per year.
Additional budget cuts would mean the center would not be able to operate at the level of service required by state law, operations director Carol DesLauriers told Healthline, so it has given notice that it will close its doors on July 1.
Meanwhile, Illinois lawmakers are scrambling to find a funding solution. Supporters of the center have emerged statewide.
Health Workers Rely on Poison Control Too
Michael Hansen serves as fire chief of the Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood. Hansen, chairman of the state’s emergency medical services advisory council, said that in addition to the center saving the state tens of millions of dollars (DesLauriers estimates $14.1 million in savings to the state's Medicaid program alone), it also funnels many calls that are not life-threatening to a hotline other than 911.
A call to 911 often leads to an unnecessary ambulance dispatch when a person’s life is not in danger. And in the end, paramedics—just like many hospital emergency room doctors—end up calling the Poison Control Center anyway.
But the reverse also happens. Sometimes a parent will call 911 after a child ingests something, Hansen said, but is extremely reluctant to take their child to the hospital even when necessary.
Hansen said in an era when so many people are reluctant to offer on-the-spot health information, the center offers common sense advice that saves lives and money. Trained operators can usually tell a parent or caregiver if an ambulance is needed. Nine out of 10 times, a trip to the hospital isn’t necessary, DesLauriers said.
Chris Webster is the emergency medical services coordinator for Davenport, Iowa-based Genesis Health System, which also operates hospitals in Illinois. He told Healthline that the hospital chain helps fund the Poison Control Center’s services because they are extremely valuable.
Billions of Dollars in Healthcare Savings
Poison Control Centers save the U.S. a combined $1.8 billion annually, according to a report commissioned by the American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC). More than half of the savings comes from avoiding unnecessary medical services.
All of the nation’s centers operate differently. State funding makes up the majority of their budgets, followed by federal dollars and contributions from the private sector.
The Illinois center operates as a non-profit. “Many other poison control centers are struggling because of funding cuts,” DesLauriers said, noting that Arkansas just closed a center. “We are a public service, so we do rely at least in part on federal funding.”
The AAPCC report noted that the role of poison control centers “has gone largely unrecognized.” Not only do they save the lives of people, but also pets. They also provide “real-time surveillance data allowing for the identification and tracking of public health and environmental threats.”
Recent examples of widespread toxicological threats addressed by poison control centers include the Gulf oil spill, the teen bath salts epidemic, and the common problem of toddlers swallowing small "button" batteries.
Illinois lawmakers hope to save the state’s center by diverting two cents from an existing wireless phone surcharge to fund the center's operations. The bill passed the state senate today. The center has launched a website to make it easy for their supporters to contact legislators.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, poisoning is the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S., usually by drug overdose. In 2008, 36,500 people died of drug overdoses, a six-fold increase since 1980.