December 10, 1999

Shortfall in funding threatens Poison Center

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Mark Penkhus

Shortfall in funding threatens Poison Center

Vanderbilt University Hospital CEO Mark Penkhus announced in a recent round of media interviews that the hospital can no longer afford to subsidize an underfinanced Middle Tennessee Poison Center.

When it opened in 1987, the center was intended to be funded by state and federal grants, the hospitals of middle Tennessee and charitable giving. The center in recent years has met with significant shortfalls in public and private funding but has continued to serve the region, thanks to funding provided by VUH.

“Due to Medicare cutbacks, TennCare reimbursement and managed care, financial pressures on hospitals are greater than ever,” Penkhus said. “We are looking at all non-core mission programs and their respective levels of support. To continue to fund services like the Poison Center is now infringing on our core mission of providing education, research and clinical services.”

From offices in Oxford House on the VUMC campus, the Middle Tennessee Poison Center serves three million people with 24-hour emergency information. This year the center is projected to receive a total of 48,000 calls for poison information. Calls come from hospital emergency rooms, EMS programs and the general public in 57 counties.

“This program deserves and requires broad community support,” Penkhus said. “The Poison Center benefits everyone in the state. We’d all love to see it continue to operate. Vanderbilt expects to pay a reasonable share of the operating costs but without adequate community support the program won’t be sustained.”

Annual operating costs during the last fiscal year came to $780,000, while funding from public and private sources came to only $258,000, leaving Vanderbilt to contribute more than $522,000.

This year the program is receiving generous new funding from the Memorial Foundation, as well as significant increased donations from United Way of Middle Tennessee and The Junior League. Nevertheless, a deficit of $366,000 is projected for the current fiscal year.

All avenues for additional funding are being investigated. Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bill Frist and U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon are helping to lead efforts in the nation's capitol to secure partial federal funding for poison centers. Approval by the House of Representatives of a measure already passed by the Senate could lead to federal funds being available by October 2000; the vote is expected to occur early in the new year.

Penkhus said a decision will be reached in early January regarding the fate of the Poison Center. The decision will depend on the success of identifying other sources of operating revenue.