Back bill to keep Oregon Poison Center open

By Dr. Zane Horowitz
Guest Editorial
    June 18, 2003 — Are you planning a nice getaway to the beach this Fourth of July? Maybe you’re headed to the mountains, or the lake, or just planning to spend a great day around the barbecue with the neighbors. Along with the fun, please remember to watch your children carefully. If a child should get into the bug spray, or the anti-itch cream, or grandma1s pills, or tangles with a snake, there may no longer be one source you can call for advice, reassurance and state-of-the art information.
    You see, the Oregon Poison Center and the help it has provided for the last 25 years will be gone on July 1, 2003 — unless legislation is enacted to continue funding poison center services.
    I am writing to ask for your support of House Bill 2709, which would allow the Oregon Poison Center to continue serving Oregon. House Bill 2709 would allocate a very small percentage of the 911 phone surcharge — literally pennies per phone line — to fund the Oregon Poison Center (OPC). This would keep the center from closing. Since the OPC is part of the Emergency Medical System, many leaders including Oregon State Representative Rob Patridge of Medford, feel that the 911 fund is sufficient to cover emergency services for Oregon1s special districts and provide the small amount needed to keep the Oregon Poison Center operating.
    Why does the Oregon Poison Center suddenly need funding to remain open? Oregon Health & Science University, which has been the center1s home for 25 years, is currently under enormous financial pressure to continue supporting many programs as a service to the state. For the entire life of the Oregon Poison Center, OHSU has shouldered 90 percent of the cost of operation, even though this has remained a toll-free statewide resource.
    Unfortunately, OHSU has clearly stated that it will not be able to continue to sustain that cost, and has turned to legislative relief for this vital resource.
    Why can’t parents and patients call another state’s 1-800 phone number? The 1-800-222-1222 phone line would be de-activated in Oregon if the Oregon Poison Center closed. And calls to other states may be blocked if their poison centers start being overwhelmed with out-of-state calls.
    What will happen if the Oregon Poison Center closes? Last month, the center did an internal survey. We followed up with callers and asked them what they would do if the Oregon Poison Center were not there. We learned that 23 percent would call the emergency department for advice, 8 percent would call 911, and 13 percent would drive themselves to the emergency department. Since the Oregon Poison Center answers more than 50,000 human exposure calls from Oregonians each year, the loss of the center would generate approximately 22,000 additional emergency department visits.
    The remaining 44 percent — 28,000 patients — would call their physician if there were no poison center. Many of these calls may also result in a referral to the emergency department for evaluation. The estimated additional cost to care for these patients would be $8 million to $9 million a year, based on a conservative estimate of emergency department charges. This is more than seven times the Oregon Poison Center1s current budget. Clearly, having a centralized service that can utilize both the Oregon Poison Center’s database resources, and the clinical experience of the center’s toxicologists, will save Oregon $7 for every dollar spent on the poison center.
    The Oregon Poison Center is a minimal investment with an extraordinary return — universal access to immediate, and often lifesaving, poison treatment information. It answers calls from all 36 counties: for example, last year, these calls included 1,604 in Deschutes County; 5,493 in Washington County; 11,490 in Multnomah County; 2,128 in Jackson County; 4,101 in Clackamas County; and 820 in Klamath County.
    What can you do to help? Please call and write your state representative immediately and strongly urge them to vote for House Bill 2709. This must happen quickly. If you do not know who your state representative is, you can get that information by simply calling 1-800-332-2313 and letting them know where you live. Please take a few moments to help Oregon preserve a crucial health care resource. It’s one that you or someone you know has probably used in the past and may very well need in the future.
    Dr. Horowitz is the Medical Director for the Oregon Poison Center.