Officials: West Virginia Poison Center cuts hard to swallow

PARKERSBURG – As the West Virginia government has made up this year’s budget, one state agency is concerned with the loss of funding.

“The Legislature, in this year’s budget, has approved a 7.5 percent cut in funding, which is detrimental to the survival of the West Virginia Poison Center,” said Carissa McBurney, community outreach coordinator with the West Virginia Poison Center in Charleston.

Also, if the state allows this cut to go through, the agency would lose the same amount – another 7.5 percent – in federal funding.

“To lose a total of 15 percent of our funding will be the end of the West Virginia Poison Center,” McBurney said. “The center would not be able to function in even the smallest amount without the funding we receive now; we have been working on as tight a budget as we can for years and these cuts would be the last straw.”

Dick Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, said the state’s poison center is the go-to agency in the event of a spill or disaster involving a substance, which is something West Virginia needs.

“I think the poison center really showed their value during the recent water issue in Charleston and to not have them to turn to is a little scary,” Wittberg said. “They are the source of expertise and to not have that leaves us in West Virginia without a go-to agency for what is and is not safe.”

The center worked with the state and local government when Freedom Industries released a chemical known as MCHM into the Elk River in early January, which led to widespread bans on use of public water in the area for weeks. More than two months later, people continue to be wary of the water coming from the taps in their homes and businesses.

“There are a lot of chemicals being transported on our interstates, highways, rails and waterways,” McBurney said. “If there was another accident, no one in the state would have all of the toxicology databases with the knowledgeable staff to help those in charge make decisions – unless the poison center remains open.”

Along with helping the state with large-scale disasters, the poison center also takes phone calls from families, emergency rooms and doctor’s offices.

Roughly 35 percent of calls to the center are from medical professionals, including pediatricians and emergency physicians.

The West Virginia Poison Center is staffed 24 hours-a-day, 365 days-a-year by medical experts (doctors, pharmacists and nurses) specially trained in poisonings. The center handles more than 42,000 calls each year from West Virginians looking for the most up-to-date poison management recommendations.

“The importance of what we do for the state – not only the large issues like the Elk River spill, but also the every day phone calls – is being overshadowed by money and that is a shame,” McBurney said.

If the state does go through with this proposed budget, West Virginia will become the only state to not have a poison control agency in the country.

“In the event that becomes a reality, we would most likely have to establish contact with a poison center in another state,” said Tim Brunicardi, director of marketing and public affairs with Camden Clark Medical Center.

McBurney said the cuts will not be implemented until the state finalizes the budget later this week.

“We remain hopeful the state will re-instate our full funding,” she said.