California Poison Control System about to fold

Budget cuts are about to make California the only state without emergency poison control services for its residents and medical professionals.

The San Francisco-based California Poison Control System has managed more than 2 million cases since its creation in 1997. Operating out of four sites around the state, clinical pharmacists, registered nurses, physicians and poison information providers answer the toll-free phones around the clock, handling around 900 cases a day; a board-certified physician toxicologist is always available to consult with doctors seeking expert, current, specialized advice in managing poison cases.

“We’re able to quickly assess when people call us that many callers are calling about things that are minor or negligible,” executive director Stuart Heard said, thus saving California an estimated $70 million in unnecessary emergency response and ER costs last year – but no more.

CPCS’s state budget line has been zeroed out for the coming budget year, meaning that hotline will go silent in September — and meaning all those cases will get shifted to 911 lines and hospital emergency rooms. Heard estimates there’ll be an additional 164,000 ER visits per year, and those overworked doctors and nurses no longer will be able to dial up the poison-control experts as they have in the past. “We’re just shifting this over to other systems that are less prepared than we are.”

Heard said the CPCS budget for the current fiscal year is between $11 million and $12 million, with California paying $5.9 million and the rest coming from the federal government or other service contracts.

“More than 50 percent of poisonings happen to children 5 years old and under and more than 90 percent happen at home,” he said. “Without the services that we provide, California’s children will be at risk. This is why we are urging residents to pick up the phone and call the Governor’s office and their legislators to ask that the funding for the California Poison Control System be returned to the budget.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Fremont Res.

    Way to repeat a talking point. I read the same scare story on the Chronicle’s site today.

    If the state did a better job of maintaining a reasonable budget, it could afford a Poison Control line — just like the other 49 states of the union. It didn’t, so I guess it won’t.

    This is how the real world works. You don’t wave your magic wand and summon 21+ billion dollars (undoubtedly to grow larger as they watch the continued decline of tax receipts) of revenue during the deepest recession in the last 70 years. You do what the rest of the world has done: cut back.

  • Josh Richman

    So cuts need to be made. But is this a wise cut — a public health entity that uses its state funding to leverage an equal amount from other sources, and which saves the state’s hospitals and emergency responders a sum possibly five times its own budget?

  • Ulno

    This is a wise cut. I pay for health care coverage and I switch when my health provider does not offer adequately trained and up-to-date medical services. When I travel, I pay for health care insurance to cover similar services. Health care coverage is a service that must be paid for by recipients. It is not right or fair that individuals force others to pay for their coverage.

    This is one of many other programs that need to be cut from the State Budget. Consider the $803 Million spent on the Dept of Housing on financial assistance to home buyers, or the $49 Million given to California Housing Finance Agency to do the same. These go to subsidize draconian restrictions on housing construction in popular areas, by forcing builders to sell 15% of their homes at sub-market prices. This is why you see a lack of homes built near work locations such as in the San Mateo County hills or shoreline, in the hills above Union City and Fremont, and along the East Bay bay shoreline. So the $1B in spending hurts the normal economic functioning and costs the taxpayer as well. Add in the other regulatory agencies, from the Coastal Commission to the Resources Boards, and you have another $1.7 B in spending that contributes to clamping down on economic development _and_ costs the taxpayers BILLIONS.

    Prosperity and abundance are the result of freedom, not central planning. Property rights and individual liberty are the best path to happiness, not centralized government control.

  • hilltopper

    Penny wise and pound foolish.

  • San Diego Res

    Children will die if they shut down this center. When my young daughter swallowed some pills (the lid wasn’t tight and she though they were M&Ms), my pediatrician called the poison control center for advice before advising us what to do. The people at the Center have a huge amount of up-to-date, specialized knowledge and expertise at their fingertips. That’s why they get 900 calls a day; that’s why every state — from Georgia to Alaska — has a Poison Control Center; and that’s why they save lives.

  • ace

    I don’t think Ulno realizes that his good fortune to have health insurance only buys him access to a doctor that calls this hot line.


  • RR

    San Diego: If your doc doesn’t know what to do when a kid swallows pills– and you know precisely which pills they were– find a new doc. The Poison Control Center is worth saving, but in most cases it is intended for use by the public in emergencies, not to advise doctors.

  • Ulno

    Sorry, Ace, it ain’t so.

    I happen to have had experience with a situation covered here. I spoke with my Doctor about this hotline and he said any Doctor calling this thing up is either inexperienced or incompetent–the hotline’s primary audience is for uninsured individuals who don’t pay for health insurance.

    Good fortune has little to do with health insurance coverage. Hard work and long hours do.


  • Wow

    Having worked at the poison control center, some examples of the calls are: My child ate a tube of toothpaste; My dog ate part of the poinsettia; My child ate some wild mushroom; etc. MDs do not know right away what to do. These experts know right away and would advise you to go to the hospital or not.

  • RPh

    Ulno mistakes single anecdotes (“my Doctor….”) with evidence or lack of benefit, which is a simplistic argument that many uninformed use to emphasize their own biased viewpoints.
    Ulno, NO physician living today can keep up with the volume of medical information published – it exceeds the human brain’s capacity to memorize and maintain it – and this includes poison information. Let’s be honest, few doctors encounter poison situations on a regular basis, nor do they invest in the kind of systems that would be required to investigate a particular remedy for any given poisoning. I know MDs who can’t even keep simple drug interactions in their memories (because there are too many of them to know) and so your blind faith in any one doctor knowing what to do when a child swallows something he or she shouldn’t is naive at best.

  • MO

    Just hope to God it’s not your child, grandchild, nephew, or cousin that ate a few of the blood pressure pills that fell out of your fathers pocket. Hospitals call this line for help. This is a specialty and time is critical when you are dealing with a child and a toxin.

  • JB

    Would anyone have a single medical specialty cut because of funding? What if you cut all cardiology, or pediatrics, or…? The people need access for help, and physicians need access to competent consultation on poisonings!

  • Whatashame

    Some of the above comments are based on complete misinformation. Poison Control is used by doctors and hospitals on a daily, routine basis for managing poison exposures. As someone else said, a single doctor cannot possible index every conceivable exposure in his/her brain on top of all the medical information necessary to perform his/her job effectively. What if the exposure wasn’t a pill? What if it was a household cleaner or a plant or an inhalant or a pesticide? All common exposures. Some potentially fatal if not treated properly and in a timely manner. The toxicological experts at Poison Control are specifically trained to manage these exposures and that is why 9-1-1 operators, pediatricians, emergency room physicians and parents all use the service. 164,000 emergency room visits are spared per year. But, Poison Control manages over 300,000 cases per year and many of those are directly from health care facilities.

    Most importantly, every $1 spent on Poison Control saves $7 in other areas of healthcare. This is simply a matter of dollar shifting and it is an immensely unwise one. Save a dollar here, spend 7 times as much somewhere else. The overburdening on emergency rooms is already overwhelmingly high. The influx of patients that will be caused by the lack of this emergency hotline will cause other patients, some critically injured or ill, to have longer wait times and lower quality service.

    For Ulno, you pay for healthcare coverage, great. But I hope you realize that your access to medical care, even through your own physician, is going to change because of patients who could have otherwise called a free service to find out whether the silica gel that came in their child’s box of shoes is actually toxic or not.

  • FDM

    Ulno, your way off. CPCS (Califonia poison control system) handles call for everyone. From my experinence with them most calls are from the insured. As to their level of expertise, consider this. Some of these people are doctors from UC Davis, UCSF, UCSD, and Childrens hospital in Fresno. I used to work for them so I know exactly who’s who.