A funding shortfall is threatening the future of the Northern New England Poison Center’s services, according to its most recent semiannual report.

With an annual budget of $1.8 million, the nonprofit center’s funded with a mix of state and federal dollars, along with about $250,000 from Maine Medical Center in Portland. More than 90 percent of the funds cover salaries and related expenses for the center’s roughly 20 employees, who undergo extensive training to meet national poison and toxicology certification standards.

Nationally, federal funding for poison centers dropped with the struggling economy, from $30 million in fiscal year 2010 to less than $19 million in 2014, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The Northern New England Poison Center’s funding falls short of the amount it needs to support the “advisable level of services,” according to the report, covering July 1-Dec. 31, 2013.

Callers are now connected to a phone prompting system with multiple options rather than a live person to prevent nonemergency calls from interfering with more urgent ones. The phone tree may discourage callers with questions about poison prevention and disadvantage those who aren’t proficient in English, the report states.

“When you call, a person should answer the phone to talk to you. … Every once in a while someone gets lost in the phone tree and panics,” said Dr. Karen Simone, the poison center’s director.

Some nonemergency calls from individuals with questions about substance abuse have excessive wait times and are occasionally put off entirely when the center must triage emergency calls.

“This has decreased the positive impact the [Northern New England Poison Center] has on substance abuse prevention, education and harm reduction,” the report states. “Unfortunately, substance abuse is the chief cause of the increase in poison-related deaths in the last several years.”

Hotline staff has thinned, and prevention materials are no longer appropriately funded, the report states. While the center prioritizes emergency calls, preventing poisonings through answering informational calls and providing education are other primary goals.

The changes are expected to increase use of emergency care, hospitalization and “perhaps associated deaths,” according to the report.

An additional several hundred thousand dollars a year would more adequately fund the center’s work, Simone said.

As the poison center works to maintain its services with fewer resources, Simone said she’s exploring attracting funding from private health insurance companies. Insurers benefit when the center helps their policyholders avoid costly and unnecessary ER visits and hospitalizations, she said, but don’t help to pay for those services.

The NNEPC surveys hospital pharmacies about their antidote availability approximately every two years. These survey results are available to the call center staff to assist them in identifying the most appropriate nearby hospital with the antidote to treat the patient, and for quick transfer of antidotes between hospitals. Antidotes used to treat exposures to nerve agents, toxic alcohol contamination, industrial accidents or chemical spills are included in the survey.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...