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Lawmakers aim to reverse health cuts to poison control center, others

Georgians afflicted with snakebites are among those who get help calling the Georgia Poison Control Center, which is funded by the state budget. Shown here: a venomous copperhead snake.
Georgians afflicted with snakebites are among those who get help calling the Georgia Poison Control Center, which is funded by the state budget. Shown here: a venomous copperhead snake.

If proposed budget cuts go into effect, Georgians who call the state's poison control center after snakebites, poison scares and other emergencies may have to wait longer to get their call answered, the center's medical director testified Thursday.

Dr. Robert Geller, who oversees the center, was among several health advocates who don’t want their budgets reduced and have given legislators a blunt picture of the possible impact of cuts proposed by the governor’s office.

The lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee intend to spend next week making changes to Gov. Brian Kemp's proposed budget. Some of them see the cuts as undoing work they have built on for several years, such as improving mental health services.

Aides to Kemp and his commissioners said they are making necessary cuts in the face of budget setbacks. Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey, whose department includes funding for the poison center, said the cuts were designed to preserve current services, minimize disruption and in some cases keep getting the state’s flow of federal money by continuing to pay the required state matching funds.

“We want our tax dollars to stay here in Georgia in public health,” Toomey told legislators in testimony last week.

That may not always be possible. Geller said cutting his budget by $49,000 or more would cost the state more than $100,000 in federal matching funds. He said ideas about cutting less urgent services such as outreach education wouldn’t work because those services are legally required in order for the center to maintain its accreditation. Instead, where he can legally cut is front-line work: people who answer the phone, for example; or, he said, rabies triage.

If rabies triage were cut, that just means people fearing a rabies bite wouldn’t have an expert who can advise them whether they really need a rabies shot. So they’d just get the shot out of caution.

After receiving expert triage, about one-third of callers turn out to not need the $10,000 to $25,000 shot, Geller said, a big statewide savings. “So if you want to cut our $49,000,” Geller said, “the state Medicaid (spending) will go up.”

A spokeswoman for Toomey’s department said in an email, “The reduction of $49,000 for Georgia Poison Center is a very small percentage of the more than $1.2 million of state funding the Poison Center receives from DPH each year.”

Others who testified included a hospital administrator in Swainsboro worried that more unfunded mental health patients could show up in emergency rooms; a cancer research networker concerned about continuing to connect cancer patients with research studies that could help them; and an advocate for sickle cell disease patients who fears cutting back a mobile testing unit that ventures into rural Georgia to look for the disease in people who are unlikely to go to the city for testing.

Lawmakers at the hearing were firm in their intent to re-fund health programs.

State Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, said two of her great concerns were cuts to the poison control center, since many of her rural constituents have been helped after snakebites, and to maternal mortality funding.

“Dr. Toomey, I really, I hurt for her,” Taylor said of the commissioner. “I’ve spoken to her offline. The great concern is there.”

State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said he understood that Kemp had set his priorities.

“And so to follow that, obviously we’re having to move money from one place to another,” Hawkins said. “Personally I just don’t think health is the place we ought to be moving it from. We need more money for health, especially for mental health. So we’re going to do what we can do to put the money back in there.”

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