Poisons centre roles jeopardised by plan

Wide-reaching functions of Dunedin's National Poisons Centre, including advising on military and national security matters, are threatened by a proposal that could cost up to 14 jobs, centre director Dr Wayne Temple says.

Many functions of the centre, which late this year will mark its 50th anniversary, were not written in contracts, he said. Dr Temple did not know how the additional services would be provided if the centre lost its status as helpline provider.

The Dunedin-based national poisons helpline may be merged with those for general health condition queries (Healthline), gambling, depression, smoking, alcohol, drug abuse, immunisation and hepatitis C. A request for proposal outlining the final shape of the combined service will be released by the Ministry of Health next month.

Emergency poison calls were unlikely to be answered as promptly by a non-specialist helpline, Dr Temple said. Eight of the 14 staff were on the front line taking calls, for which they had specialist training.

The centre housed a specialist poison database, which was time-consuming to maintain, Dr Temple said.

''We have a very complex service. It's not just sitting in front of a phone and plucking data out of a database that's been compiled by other people.''

He felt ''strongly'' the merger had not been well considered. It was international best practice for poison services to be stand-alone.

''We're puzzled why we're put into that [combined] service.''

The service had interacted with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to give advice on chemical terrorism, and advised the military about possible hazards on overseas deployments.

Its advice was sought by police regarding clandestine laboratories, and other law enforcement matters. Other agencies seeking advice included the Ministry of Health, the Fire Service, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the Ministry for Primary Industries (food safety), the Environmental Protection Authority and the coroner's office.

It provided complex data to aid the development of New Zealand's world-first legislation, the Psychoactive Substances Act, which would regulate the substances in a new way.

In addition, the centre educated the public, particularly children, about poisons.

The Ministry of Health is to release the proposal in a couple of weeks. Yesterday a spokesman said the ministry had listened to submissions from affected services, and made some changes to its initial plan, but he could not comment further.

Dr Temple said it would be the University of Otago's decision whether to tender to provide the mega-helpline, but on a practical level, it did not appear feasible.

''We're anxiously awaiting the request for proposal to see what's happened.''

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne, contacted for comment, acknowledged the work of the poisons centre in providing detailed data for the psychoactive law he introduced in Parliament, which was passed last year.

''I do want to acknowledge the work the National Poisons Centre has done over a long period of time, and I hope that that will continue. And that's really about all I can say at this stage.

''I don't have personally any qualms about the quality of what they do, but I can't say anything beyond that.''

He was not involved in the process being undertaken by the ministry, Mr Dunne said.


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