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A free telemedicine service in Chicago serving Illinois with a variety of services is facing closure July 1 unless a new revenue stream is tapped.

Illinois Poison Center, founded in 1953, is a free service manned by pharmacists, nurses and toxicologists who answer nearly 82,000 calls annually to give information including treatment on poison exposures.

Because of a $1.5 million loss in public funding from 2009 to 2013, the center has been functioning at a deficit of about $500,000 annually. That has resulted in a cut of public services and about 25 percent staff.

"We can't sustain as a nonprofit," said center Medical Director Dr. Michael Wahl.

State lawmakers are working on a plan to keep the center open by diverting money collected from cell phone fees. The Illinois Senate approved the measure Thursday. It is now pending in a House committee.

Attorney General Lisa Madigan praised the center recently for its work on surveillance of drug trends.

"We've established a good relationship with the Illinois Poison Center to lower synthetic drug usage in this state by almost 50 percent less than the national average," Madigan said during her guest speech at the 11th Annual Southern Illinois Drug Awareness Conference at John A. Logan College in April.

The center provided research and up-to-date information on nearly 20 compounds associated with synthetic drugs. That led the Illinois Legislature to amend the Controlled Substances Act, banning commercial sales of those drugs, according to a center report authored by Wahl.

"In 2010 and 2011 at the peak of synthetic drug usage, central and Southern Illinois had a usage rate four times higher than the rest of the state with drugs like synthetic ecstasy," Wahl said in a telephone interview with The Southern Illinoisan.

Dr. Gerald McClallen, medical director of emergency services for Southern Illinois Healthcare Medical Group, said what the center offers is invaluable for both physicians working in emergency rooms and people who may have been poisoned.

"I can't think of a better value for the State of Illinois. The public can and get information over the phone without any hesitancy," said McClallen who works the St. Joseph Memorial Hospital emergency room.

With its instant availability and thoroughness from its toll free number at 800-222-1222, the center saves nearly 35,000 visits to hospital emergency rooms. Another 20,000 ambulance poison call requests are saved annually, also. That's a huge costs savings for both patients and providers, McClallen said.

McClallen said he has used the service since his residency years beginning in 1991.

He said the center follows up on cases it receives. It also offers training to about 80 medical residents annually in addition to providing seminars for continuing learning. There is also a resource library, medical disposal guidelines and first aid training information available on the center web site at, McClallen said.

Law enforcement officers also use the poison center when responding to drug overdose and prescription drug cases, said Tom McNamara, a narcotics consultant for Southern Illinois Enforcement Group.


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