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Poison Center should stay open

Oregonians get 24-hour emergency help over the phone for a pittance

Overshadowed by the budget shortfall facing public education and the other big-ticket items in the state budget is an impending cut that, while tiny in comparison, would have a tremendous effect on the state and its residents.

It's not even part of the state general fund budget, but it is a vital statewide service that depends indirectly on state funding. And there is a bill now in the House of Representatives that would keep it alive.

We're talking about the Oregon Poison Center, operated by Oregon Health and Science University. With a single phone call, doctors, emergency medical personnel, law enforcement and the general public can reach a poison specialist 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All that for an annual budget of &

36;1.2 million.

OHSU is facing a &

36;50 million shortfall in its own budget, and the Poison Center is on the block. If a way can't be found to continue funding the center, it will close completely at the end of this month.

That will mean the 70,000 calls the center handles annually will have to go someplace else. That someplace else will be local 911 operators, hospital emergency rooms and physicians' offices.

— None of those places are equipped to handle the calls, and the people working there don't have the specialized training and experience possessed by the Poison Center's 20 registered nurses and five medical toxicologists.

The cost of handling those calls will shift, too. Dr. Zane Horowitz, medical director of the Poison Center, says the center's cost is &

36;19 a call. That compares with &

36;80 for the average 911 call.

In 2002, the center received more than 2,000 calls from Jackson County involving human exposure. Of those, 84 percent were handled without the caller having to leave home. Only 106 callers were referred to a hospital for treatment.

We'd call that a cost-effective public service.

Horowitz estimates the closure of his center would mean 700 more emergency-room visits annually ' at an estimated cost of &

36;250,000 in unnecessary medical care ' and 175 more 911 calls. Not so cost-effective.

But there is a solution ' a simple one, with a built-in funding source.

House Bill 2709, introduced by Rep. Rob Patridge, R-Medford, would earmark a portion of existing state 911 funding to continue the Poison Center's operation.

That funding comes from a surcharge already assessed on every telephone number in the state. We already pay the surcharge on our monthly phone bill. It would not increase.

Income from the surcharge already increases every year because of growth in the number of telephones.

HB 2709 has been referred from the House Ways and Means Committee to its Subcommittee on Public Safety. The bill should be enacted, and quickly, so that this essential public health service is not lost.

Snuffing it out

You would think that with all the anti-cigarette advertising on the television that young people would not be attracted to the noxious weed, but sadly, this is not so. And many stores still sell cigarettes ' some of them to minors.

Two radio ads aimed at teens too young to buy cigarettes and the merchants who shouldn't sell them will air for the next eight weeks on four Jackson County stations, among 40 in Southern Oregon, Eastern Oregon and the south coast.

One features teens talking about how easy it is to buy tobacco, the other a clerk talking about avoiding illegal sales on a hectic work day.

Quite a bit of progress has been made in foiling sales of cigarettes to minors. Test cases show minors in Jackson County are able to buy cigarettes just over 17 percent of the time, down from more than 54 percent in 1997.

Retailers deserve praise for making progress in reducing sales to minors. Let's hope the ads make even more progress.