As part of a series on the “penny-and-pound foolish cuts the House Republicans want to impose,” the New York Times editorial board lambastes a proposal to cut federal funding to Poison Control Centers from $29 million (Obama’s request) to $2 million. This federal money only covers about 20% of the centers’ costs, but slashing it will likely force many centers to close. This would be a shame, the editorial board explains, because poison control centers actually save money:
The nation’s network of 57 poison control centers takes four million calls a year about people who may have been exposed to a toxic substance. In three-quarters of all cases, the centers are able to provide treatment advice that does not require a visit to a hospital or a doctor, saving tens of millions of dollars in medical costs.
While a single visit to an emergency room can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars (often paid for by the government), a call to a poison center costs the government only $30 or $40. A study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology estimated that the poison centers saved the State of Arizona alone $33 million a year. Louisiana eliminated its centers in the 1980s but restored them when it realized how much money they saved.
Given the current blind fervor for cost-cutting, I suspect that it doesn’t really matter to House Republicans who’ll end up paying more if poison control centers close. But the federal government won’t be the only entity looking at higher costs.
Several different groups of payers will be responsible for the costs of people who previously could’ve avoided seeking medical care based on poison hotline advice but who’ll now end up in the emergency room. Some will be Medicare beneficiaries, which means the federal government will be picking up the tab. Some will be Medicaid beneficiaires, so states will be on the hook for the costs. Others will be privately insured, and the increased costs they incur will influence premium growth for others in their plans. And then, of course, there will be the uninsured. Some will pay their medical bills even if it means financial hardship. Others won’t, and the hospitals that treated them will be stuck with the costs.
If the federal government makes this kind of cut to the budget, it’s not actually saving money – it’s incurring a higher cost, and shifting much of that cost to other entities.