I-Team: Illinois Poison Center hotline's cry for help

The I-Team investigates claims by the country's oldest poison hotline that it's being forced out of business.
April 15, 2014 8:35:03 PM PDT
The ABC7 I-Team investigates claims by the country's oldest poison hotline that it's being forced out of business. It's a cry for help that other emergency groups warn they can't afford to answer.

Illinois Poison Center claims to be so deep in the danger zone that they have filed an official closure notice with the state. Usually poison control is on the helping end of the hotline, but they are the ones calling for help, and not a quick remedy or a fast fix. They want taxpayers to cough up lots of money to keep them in business.

Toddlers sickened by laundry soap, teens overdosing on designer drugs: when they pick up, there's no telling what these poison experts will encounter. Every phone call has its own urgency.

"It's hard to quantify a death prevented unless we go away," said Dr. Michael Wahl, medical director, Illinois Poison Center.

But then there are the calls that just need reassurance.

"My heart dropped 'cause you know you have heard, eye drops can make kids really sick, make people really sick, so I kinda had a freakout moment," said Emily O'Keefe, mother.

This worried mom was put at ease; the drops her daughter got into were not dangerous and a trip to the hospital deemed unnecessary. Along with saving lives, Illinois Poison Center advocates say the hotline also saves the state tens of millions of dollars a year by taking the burden off other services such as emergency rooms and 911 centers.

"We are able to treat 90% of those people at home without referral to a healthcare facility," said Dr. Wahl.

The price tag for this private and publicly funded center is about $4.3 million a year. Right now, the non-profit claims to face an estimated half-million dollar shortfall, and unless that gap is filled, the center says it will close July 1. As government funding dries up, state lawmakers consider a plan that would redirect a small portion of a 911 fee already charged by cell phone companies.

"It's a good example of how we can repurpose money that is already being collected," said Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park.

What poison control supporters see as a repurpose, 911 centers call a rip off.

"This is a money grab by the Illinois Poison Control," said David Tuttle, Illinois Chapter National Emergency Number Association.

Under current regulations, Chicago cell users don't pay into the program. The $0.02 per cell phone user will only come from cell phone users in the suburbs and the rest of the state.

"Wireless 911 surcharge money is for 911 service, not for poison control, not for something else someone feels is a worthy cause," said Tuttle.

Illinois Poison Control is run by the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council . IPC sent the I-Team a partial breakdown of its income and expenses but declined to provide details including individual employee salaries.

On Tuesday night, the poison control's medical director says any further budget cuts could threaten the hotline's accreditation. Fiscal watchdog group Truth in Accounting questions why half of the $4 million budget is spent on salaries and why the center is paying $350,000 in benefits.

"Taxpayers deserve truthful and transparent information as much as possible and the legislators should have that information before they make the decision on whether to give them additional money," said Shelia Weinberg, Founder & CEO, Truth in Accounting.

An IPC spokesperson says most of its 26 employees are highly trained doctors, pharmacists or nurses with an average tenure of 13 years. The Illinois center says it operates at 75 percent of the cost of the national average for poison centers. The proposed cell phone fee legislation also includes a state audit of poison control finances.


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