All want Md. poison center, but its funding is bitter medicine

April 10, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland Poison Control Center is a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour program every state agency wants around.

It's also a million-dollar program no state agency wants to fund.

As a result of a yawning budget gap stemming from tensions between Baltimore and Washington-area suburbs and bureaucratic wrangling, the poison center faces staff reductions beginning in July.

Center officials say that without additional money, they will have to cut back. That means fewer days each week, fewer hours each day, or fewer counties served.

The center might, for example, ask counties to contribute cash to a pool to subsidize its operations, and refuse to help callers from those counties that don't pay.

"There's that faith that a university system such as ours will continue to operate the service," said David J. Ramsay, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, the center's home. But the university cannot afford to continue to subsidize the program, he said.

"In the long run, you're going to spend more money, but you're going to lose more lives," Dr. Ramsay said. "To my mind, that's by far the more important issue."

The center has six full-time staffers -- nurses and pharmacists trained in clinical toxicology -- who answer phones and recommend immediate antidotes for people who have come into contact with poisons. It also relies on part-time volunteers who are students in UMAB's health care fields, although the volunteers advise callers only under the directsupervision of full-time staffers.

"We shouldn't have those students answering the phones," said Dr. Bruce D. Anderson, the program's director.

But Dr. Anderson said he is considering layoffs if more money is not found.

The center maintains more up-to-date information on toxic substances than any other agency in the state. More than 60,000 calls poured in last year. Nearly 38,000 of them were about people who had consumed or come into contact with poisons. Parents routinely call the Baltimore service. So do paramedics, school nurses and doctors in the emergency rooms of Maryland hospitals.

"There's no physician I know who's memorized the toxicology textbooks," said Dr. William Mysko, clinical director of Johns Hopkins Hospital. "I always encourage the residents here to call the Poison Control Center on every case."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 includes $678,000 for the center through the University of Maryland System, the same figure as this year.

The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, which houses the center, has subsidized it with $270,000 a year. In an era of heavy cuts on campuses nationwide and severe losses at many medical research universities, UMAB officials said they can't continue to prop up the center without help from Annapolis.

A task force convened by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer concluded the Baltimore center would need $1.6 million to provide full coverage for the state.

Annapolis has sent $290,000 this year -- and will again next year -- to subsidize the operations of the National Poison Control Center in Washington, which handles two-thirds of the calls from Montgomery and Prince George's counties. One-third of calls from the two counties go to the Baltimore-based center.

The subsidy to the Washington center clearly rankles University of Maryland System administrators, who say they want the Baltimore center to service all state residents.

In fact, university officials said, it's time for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to step in and pay for what is clearly a public health service.

The health department's response: not without more information and more money from the state legislature.

State health Secretary Dr. Martin P. Wasserman did not take action to sponsor the Poison Control Center because he has no knowledge on which to base a request to the legislature, said his spokesman, Michael Golden. "This is an issue for the university, not so much for us," Mr. Golden said.

"The university has not presented any data to the department that would allow us to do an evaluation" of what diminished funding would mean for public health, Mr. Golden said.

Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg disputed that assertion, saying officials have lobbied the health department under Dr. Wasserman and his predecessor, Nelson J. Sabatini, as well as the Maryland General Assembly on behalf of the center.

However, the university did not seek any additional money for the center in its budget proposal.

"The system did not request any funding other than the ongoing funding," said John Lippincott, spokesman for the University of Maryland System. "This year, the chancellor did ask that if there were supplemental funds available through DHMH" -- the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene -- "we would be supportive of that."

"It is indeed an important state priority and therefore should be funded through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene," Mr. Lippincott said.

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