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Budget cuts bitter pill for UA poison center

Tucson's poison control center may be due for painful cuts if a new federal budget is passed.

The House Republican plan working its way through Congress includes a 93 percent cut to funding for poison control centers nationwide. The $27 million cut would leave $2 million to fund 57 poison centers nationwide.

Arizona's poison control centers have already taken a 50 percent decrease in state funding over the last two years, and the GOP budget proposal puts the 15 percent of federal funding allocated to Arizona's poison control centers at risk.

Keith Boesen, managing director of the University of Arizona's poison control center, said that budget cuts would affect poison centers dramatically. "There would be a handful of poison centers that would close immediately."

"We have every intent in staying open," Boesen said, "but federal budget cuts make it hard."

The $1.5 million budget for UA's poison control center is roughly made up of $200,000 in federal funding, and $600,000 in state funding. The School of Pharmacy and company contracts pay for the remaining $700,000, Boesen said.

Further cuts in federal funding would force poison control centers to rely even more on donations and company contracts, which are hard to come by, and even harder to sustain, Boesen said.

The Arizona Poison & Drug Information Center, part of the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy, provides free advice to all parts of the state except Maricopa County.

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The center offers confidential information over the phone about poisons and toxins, poison prevention and the safe use of medications. Besides assisting with medication and chemical poison questions, the center provides information on poisonous plants, and for people and pets bitten by snakes or stung by scorpions, bees and other animals.  The center can also answer questions about medicines and chemicals during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Poison centers nationwide can be reached by calling 800-222-1222.

The center's pharmacists answer about 65,000 calls per year, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the center said in a news release.

In 2009 U.S. poison control centers received more than 4.2 million calls. Of those calls, 407,000 were from other health care facilities seeking advice, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

About half of the Tucson center's calls concern human exposure to something toxic, with half of those calls involving young children, the center said.

The center is staffed by a variety of experts, including clinical and medical toxicologists, emergency medicine and pediatrics physicians, clinical pharmacists, pharmacologists, and other resources of regional toxicology expertise such as staff members of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

Local poison centers are important, Boesen said. "Someone thought that you only need one poison control center, but that's like having only one university." 

Besides phone consultation, poison control centers also offer patient outreach programs that can prevent inappropriate treatment, Boesen said.

Next to vaccines, poison control centers are second in saving health care costs, Boesen said.

Every call costs $23 to handle but for every dollar spent, $7 are saved in unnecessary health care costs, Boesen said.

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Poison centers can determine the level of care people need directly over the phone, sparing 70 percent of callers a trip to the emergency room. If a trip to the hospital is needed, the length of the stay is usually cut in half, Boesen said.

With an average emergency room visit costing $560, poison center calls potentially saved $997,395,280 in medical expenses nationwide, the center said on its website.

Nationwide, every 90 seconds a health care professional calls a poison center. Patients whose doctor consulted a center have shorter hospitalizations—3.5 days versus 6.5 days on average, which results in savings of more than $2,100 per patient, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The College of Pharmacy, which began operating the center in 1955, is working to develop alternate sources of funding for the UA center.

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Arizona Poison & Drug Information Center

When to call the poison center

Call the Arizona Poison & Drug Information Center at 800-222-1222:

  • If you think someone has been poisoned
  • If someone has taken too many drugs or unknown medications
  • If you need to know more about a drug
  • If you or your pet has been stung or bitten by a poisonous creature
  • If you need information about preventing accidental poisonings
  • Source: Arizona Poison & Drug Information Center

iPhone app

  • Connect to your local poison center with the push of a button with the AAPCC iphone app.