Wes Powell, the department's assistant chief for emergency medical services, says emergency services in Phoenix could be severely strained when the center is closed. The center's doctors prevent an unknown number of unnecessary ambulance runs by dealing with minor problems over the phone, he says.

If the Tucson center--which itself deals with more than 60,000 calls a year--is unable to provide the same level of service as Samaritan, Powell fears that "thousands" of minor calls will result in ambulance transport as paramedics err on the side of safety.

"My suspicion is that a lot of these will be going to the hospital," Powell says.

Powell, who says he learned of the planned closing through newspaper reports, says Samaritan has assured him that the same level of services will be available from the Tucson center.

Samaritan's Green says his company is working with the Tucson center to make sure there is no drop in service. The Tucson center already has a state-funded 800 number, and can be called for free from anywhere in the state.

"What the fire department needs is access to toxicologists," Green says. "It's just a question of where the phone calls are taken to make sure the services are made available."
But many are skeptical of the Tucson center's ability to fill the role now played by Samaritan's center. (Ted Tong, director of the Tucson center, did not return calls seeking comment.)

Until recently, the Tucson center was funded partially by the state legislature directly, and by taxpayers indirectly through a subsidy given by the University of Arizona.

But last year, the university said it was scrapping its $300,000 contribution, and the Tucson center itself would have closed on January 1 if donors had not bailed it out.

The Tucson center is now pleading with the legislature for $1.2 million so that it can stay open and prepare to absorb the extra calls that will come when the Samaritan center closes. In the past, the Tucson center has received about $500,000 a year from the stae.

The Tucson center's dependence on the annual political and budgetary whims of the legislature is not comforting to many.

"If their funding is soft, how are they going to accept the volume of calls that have been historically coming to the [Samaritan] center every year?" Powell asks. "It may be that when Samaritan goes out of business, all these calls are answered in Tucson and nothing will change. But it's difficult for me to believe that, given their current level of funding, there isn't going to be some slippage."
Powell says he has asked the state Emergency Medical Services Council, on which he sits, to explore what impact the Samaritan closing will have and whether Tucson will be able to fill the void.

State Representative Susan Gerard is pushing for more than just study.
Gerard flatly contends that the loss of a Phoenix center is unacceptable, and faults Samaritan for not giving anyone a chance to salvage the operation.

And she is not at all happy that the University of Arizona will have the state's sole center after the school cut its own $300,000 contribution to it last year.

"They'll be in a monopoly situation and be able to blackmail us and use scare tactics to extort more money," Gerard says.

Gerard says she will push legislation to require that any state-funded poison center must have operations in both Pima and Maricopa counties, forcing the university to establish some sort of branch center here.

She may also try, she says, to have a poison-control contract put out for bid every few years, to enhance competition and force the level of service to remain high.

Green says he doubts whether any other hospital in the Valley would want to jump into the poison center business, since they would only be duplicating services that should be available from Tucson.

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