Bureaucratic poison

April 24, 1995

The Maryland Poison Control Center is the difference between life or death for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. As such, it is too vital to become a bureaucratic football to be kicked around between state agencies.

For many years the center, which advises health professionals about treatment for poisons around the clock, has been part of the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Faced with budget stringency and inadequate funding, the university wants to shift the program elsewhere. The state health department, with the ++ same budget problems, is ducking. As a result, the already understaffed poison center may have to cut back services. That is unacceptable.

Locating the poison center at the university's School of Pharmacy makes sense. Its faculty has the expertise that even the best-trained health professionals often lack about poisons. The center is a valuable training tool for its students. But its students are now manning the telephones some of the time, doing work only a fully trained specialist should do (although the specialists closely supervise the students). Perhaps that justifies the university's bearing some of the costs of the center. But it should not have to bear more of the burden.

Poison treatment and prevention is a public health matter. While universities historically have performed public services outside their roles as educators, they can no longer afford to stray far from their central missions. Even an infusion of additional funds to support the poison center would make UMAB's budget appear larger without contributing more to education. The health bureaucrats similarly want to avoid new projects that would appear to inflate their budget while they are seeking more money for long-standing services.

This is silly. Everyone agrees the poison center is a critical service. Squabbling over whose budget finances it is short-sighted and petty. So is the university's provincial begrudging of a state contribution to a similar facility in Washington. Most doctors in Montgomery and Prince George's counties naturally turn to nearby hospitals in Washington for special services. Trying to force them into switching to the Baltimore center makes no sense.

What matters is that Marylanders get prompt and expert treatment for poisoning. That's a public health issue, and public health is the domain of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The few hundred thousand dollars about which the bureaucrats are squabbling is small change. If the two agencies can't settle this matter, Gov. Parris Glendening needs to rap some knuckles.

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