For years, the Regional Poison Control Center at UCI Medical Center has been in a life-and-death struggle to save lives. The battle for its own survival now appears lost.
Earlier this month, medical center officials decided to close the center. They didn't think their budget could afford the $500,000 a year it takes to run the operation. But can the community afford to be without a poison-control hot line?
No. After May 7, about 51,000 callers from Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Inyo and Mono counties who dial the hot line each year, desperate for expert help, will not get help.
The center will be closed--but at what price? Some public money will be saved. But, no doubt, some lives will also be lost in the process.
Some of the calls that regularly come into the poison control center are frantic ones, from a parent whose child has swallowed some substance that could be deadly, from a physician seeking quick information on an antidote or from a paramedic responding to an emergency call.
The center has always been there, 24 hours a day--every day. After May 7 it won't be. And there is no other facility in the county geared to step in and fill the critical void.
The closure will leave Orange County, and the other four counties in the regional system, unserved--and vulnerable.
It takes about $800,000 a year to operate the center. The state provides only $300,000 of it. No one else has seen fit to help provide the rest. Not the counties that have a responsibility for public health. Not the area's hospitals or doctors. Not the public that uses the center.
It's not as if those who benefit from the center didn't have the chance. UCI Medical Center administrators said they approached them all in the past year pleading for financial help. The antidote for surviving the latest financial emergency wasn't found.
But medical center administrators can't lay off the entire blame on others. Did they give the poison center the high priority in funding that it deserves? Obviously not.
Did medical center administrators really try hard enough to save it? Some center supporters don't think so.
Once before, in 1983, the regional poison center faced a similar plight. It was ready to close its doors. Like now, a closing date was even set.
But County Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, who criticized the medical center for not meeting its obligation to "develop a financial plan for continued operation of the poison center," and Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, intervened. Stanton called that planned closure shortsighted. The two supervisors helped rally a community effort that kept the center's phone lines operating.
Countless lives have been saved in the nine years since then. A similar effort and response are needed now. If the community and public agencies don't respond, some hospital should step in to provide the life-saving service.
There is a bill pending in the Legislature that would help provide stable funding to regional poison centers. It proposes to place surcharges on the manufacturers of products that are likely to cause toxic reactions.
Unfortunately, even if it is passed, it comes a little too late to resolve the current financial crisis. It would be about two years before any money started coming in. The poison center needs the money \o7 now\f7 to survive.
After May 7, the center will be gone. What the medical center administrators can't make disappear is the critical need.