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Funding Debated For Poison Control Center

On Monday, the Legislative Joint Financial Committee will meet  to approve emergency funds to keep New Hampshire's poison control center running for the next year. Without the funds, on July 1, poison control won't be available to New Hampshire residents anymore.It's not unusual to walk into the emergency room at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene and find gurneys with patients in the hallways. They don't like for that to happen, but it happens. After all, they take all comers in the ER, by foot and by phone, says Harneet Sethi, Medical Director of the emergency department at Cheshire.

"We're very often at capacity all of the beds are full, and you know our concern is the ability to treat the acute patients."

So add to the already high volumes and stretched staff, 6,000 extra calls or walk-ins per year--that's  15 to 20 extra people per day. This is the estimated number of poison related calls and visits expected to trickle into Emergency rooms and doctors' offices if poison control goes away.

"With regards to how the impact of the poison center--every study has shown that effective poison centers decrease unnecessary ER visits, and also allow us to focus on those that are truly necessary. So very critical that that service continue in my estimation."

The state needs at least $550,000 to pay for New Hampshire's participation the Northern New England Poison Center, or NNEPC, or New Hampshire loses the service.

As it stands, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire share the service. The headquarters is in Maine, with two satellite offices in Burlington and Concord each staffed with poisoning experts and direct access to toxicologists.

According to NNEPC statistics, in 2010, 26,058 calls came into poison control from New Hampshire residents, 12,000 of which were actual poisonings. Seventy-five percent of those people were treated over the phone by poison control without a visit to the emergency room.

Karen Simone is the clinical toxicologist and director of the NNEPC.

"When New Hampshire entered the collaborative with Maine and Vermont, they didn’t have an obvious source of funding. And at that same time, the federal government had available to the state money to help with preparedness after 9/11, there was money set aside by the government for the states to help them get ready and prepare for anything else like that that might happen."

The state uesd the preparedness money for poison control since, if there was a major disaster, poison control would be part of the response team. 

But, says NH State Rep. Laurie Harding, who sits on the Health and Human Services committee, a few years ago the feds started hinting the state could no longer use that money. As of last July, the government became more emphatic and in April outright forbid the continued use of these funds for poison control.

"I think the department has been consumed with a lot of other issues. And I think they were hoping against hope that there would be more federal funds coming, which of course there were not."

While Vermont and Maine's funding is solid, state and poison control officials have been scrambling to come up with a solution for New Hampshire. But, there's just no money for it.

Or, at least, there wasn't. Harding says in recent weeks officials from the Department of Safety offered $500,000 from its Enhanced 911 and Fire Standards and Training budgets to help pay for the service.

Harding says this is justified because Emergency Services as well as Emergency Medical Personnel rely on poison control. She says the remaining $50,000 may still legitimately be able to come from the federal government.

The fund transfer still has to be approved by the Legislative Joint Financial Committee at a hearing on Monday. But even that's not the end of the story.

"Keep in mind, this is only a one year fix. The state's going to have to ante up in the future on this. So we're going to need to find some money in the general fund in the future."

Without the money, as of July first, when New Hampshire residents call poison control, they will get a recorded message advising they call 911 or go to the emergency room says NNEPC director Simone.

"You know, this is a nightmare for us. Our job is to help people. And every day we come into work assuming we're going to do that. …And the thought of not being able to do that is frightening, it's depressing. So we're concerned and we’re worried about what will happen."





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