Budget cuts and poison control centers

COVID-19 left state budgets in tatters, but defunding poison control centers isn't the answer.

Alex Garrard, Medical Affairs Director •

It didn’t make headline news, but earlier this year poison control centers (PCCs) were fighting for their existence in states like Georgia and Kentucky.

One would think that, with calls to such centers on the rise (due largely to misinformation around treating Covid-19), these centers would be spared from state budget cuts. Yet this year, those decisions will be even more difficult than usual, seeing as the pandemic has wiped out billions in revenue – Ohio, for example, saw a nearly $1 billion dollar revenue loss between February and April – leaving some states on the verge of bankruptcy and others grasping for emergency loans.

The discussions surrounding these budgets tend to be (justifiably) focused on education, health care and police-related expenditures. But as states continue to make cuts, we would do well to not let one crucial area of public health go by the wayside in the very moment we need it most.

We must support our nation’s poison control centers.

Historically underfunded – and more important than ever

If states decide to slash funds to their PCCs, it wouldn’t be for the first time. Our nation’s poison control centers regularly have to validate their existence to federal and state legislatures who seem to forget the work they do as one of our first lines of emergency medical care.

This is not a passing trend: in 2011, Congress nearly cut all funding for PCCs in the U.S.; in 2009, California completely eliminated the state’s poison control service; and in Virginia, funding for PCCs dwindled from nearly $2 million in 1998 to $500,000 in 2011-2013.

Despite budgetary pressures, now is not the time to put these centers on the chopping block. Calls to PCCs have been spiking as well-intentioned but misinformed Americans self-medicate, and as children, now at home full-time, ingest any number of cleaning supplies their parents left laying around in an effort to keep homes disinfected. An online survey of 502 Americans released in June by the CDC found that more than a third misused disinfectants and other cleaners in an effort to prevent infection from Covid-19.

Yet our nation’s PCCs – and the medical toxicologists and other healthcare professionals who staff them – do more than respond to emergency calls; they’re also who we rely on to inform the masses during a time rife with life-threatening misinformation, scams, and hundreds of new e-commerce sites claiming to have virus-fighting products.

Misinformation spreads on fear and panic, and while some may believe the worst is past, other states have witnessed a surge in new COVID-19 cases as they reopen for business. This, in turn, may fuel more problems in need of PCCs’ attention – compounding emergencies caused by opioid overdose, suicide attempts and accidental ingestion of toxic substances.

Georgia, whose legislature proposed cuts to PCCs, happens to be one of those states with a surge in new cases. They would do well to follow Kentucky’s example: there, the Governor responded to a rise in calls to its PCC by giving it more funding, not less, to create a dedicated coronavirus hotline. Calls jumped to 10 times the usual volume within the first month of the expanded program.

If Georgia and others follow suit, they might find that the savings – whether it’s COVID-19-related, opioid-related, snake bites, or otherwise – outweigh the costs. Decades of studies have shown that for every dollar spent on poison control, cost savings of $6 to $36 are earned.

Specialists in poison information and toxicologists staffing the poison control hotlines may not make front page news or be portrayed in movies and TV. But they’ve been on the front lines of this and many other public health calamities in this country. We shouldn’t abandon them in the very moment we need them the most.

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