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Poison Control Centers Face Financial Problems

Anxious for quick information, callers to an eastern Ohio poison control line instead got this message this month: “The services of the Mahoning Valley Poison Center are no longer available. … Consult your physician.”

The nation’s poison centers, beset by financial difficulties, continue to close, cut services and scrounge for money to stay in the business of saving lives.

There were some 2.3 million calls to poison control centers last year seeking fast telephone help in treating people who had swallowed harmful substances, suffered animal, insect or snake bites or inhaled toxic fumes. Nearly 1 million of the calls involved children under 6 years old.

Federal health officials have been researching possible funding options since last summer and are expected to report on them before the end of the year.

Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala expects to present Congress with a funding plan by spring, a year later than lawmakers had requested, said Jean Athey, director of a program for children’s emergency medical services at HHS.

Athey’s office is sponsoring two research projects, one of which is an analysis of various funding proposals, such as grants to states to help them support poison control centers, said Ted Miller, a consultant to HHS.

Other funding ideas include surcharges on telephone calls and copies of birth certificates, billing people who call the centers and taxing the makers and distributors of consumer products associated with poisonings.

The second research effort is to examine ways to provide poison center services for less money and whether the federal government should run them.

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