Budget cuts could close Kentucky's poison control center

Posted at 4:48 PM, Feb 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-22 16:48:06-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky could become the only state in the country without access to a poison control center, including the national hotline used by police, hospitals and parents more than 136 times a day for guidance on exposure to opioids and other harmful substances.

Republican Gov. Matt Bevin's proposed two-year spending plan eliminates $729,000 in state funds for the Kentucky Poison Control Center, or 43 percent of its $1.7 million budget. Most of the other funding comes from Norton Healthcare, the Louisville-based not-for-profit hospital system that has operated the center for decades.

The center has a staff of 14 nationally certified toxicology nurses who answer about 50,000 phone calls each year from Kentuckians to the poison control hotline. The national 1-800 number automatically routes calls from Kentucky to the poison control center in downtown Louisville.

Riggs Lewis, Norton's vice president for health policy, said if the program is eliminated callers to the poison control hotline would be greeted with an automatic recording telling them the service is not available in their area and urging them to either call 911 or visit their local emergency room.

The state could set up its own poison control center. Or it could pay another state to handle its calls, as some sparsely populated states do. Both options, Lewis said, would be more expensive.

State officials have not said what they would do. Doug Hogan, spokesman for the state agency that oversees the poison control center's contract, did not directly answer a question about the program's future, saying limited state funding means "difficult choices must be made."

The proposed cut has left some lawmakers baffled, including Democratic state Sen. Morgan McGarvey of Louisville. McGarvey said the hotline is critical for the state's public health, adding his parents once called the hotline when he was a child and ate some rhubarb leaves at a grocery store.

"You scratch your head, going 'This is where they chose to get $700,000?" McGarvey said. "It puts people in danger."

The center is one of 70 state programs Bevin has proposed to eliminate, including money for cancer research and a network of statewide weather monitoring stations used to issue warnings for severe storms. Bevin says the money had to be cut to make room for the $3.3 billion the state must spend on its struggling public pension system. Kentucky's system is among the worst funded in the country, at least $41 billion short of the money required to pay benefits over the next 30 years.

"In order to properly fund our pension systems with limited available resources, difficult choices must be made," said Hogan, spokesman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services. "There is simply not enough money to afford the current pension system while continuing to fund every existing state program."

In addition to answering calls, the poison control center keeps detailed records of those calls and uploads them to a national database. That's how the center was able to alert the public in 2014 about problems with liquid nicotine from e-cigarettes. And last year, it spotted an increase of counterfeit Percocet pills and notified local law enforcement.

"We're sometimes the first ones to know and work with law enforcement to let them know this has come to Kentucky," said Ashley Webb, the poison control center's director.

The Kentucky Poison Control Center began with a single phone at a children's hospital. But today, more than half the calls are about adults. Most calls for adults have to do with over-the-counter pain relievers, sedatives, antidepressants and opioids. Top calls for children include cough and cold medication, pain relievers and vitamins.