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House panel OKs needle exchange bill despite AG’s opposition

January 26, 2017

A proposal that would give counties and municipalities control over creating needle-exchange programs in their communities advanced through a legislative committee Wednesday, despite opposition from new Attorney General Curtis Hill.

The measure, backed by Gov. Eric Holcomb and Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams, would remove the requirement that the state declare an emergency before a needle-exchange program’s creation and give local governments more freedom in deciding to establish them. The emergency declarations were originally mandated to “reassure” the public of the need for a needle exchange, Adams said, but no longer are necessary.

The House Public Health Committee voted 11-1 Wednesday to approve the proposal.

Needle exchanges are aimed at reducing needle-sharing and the spread of infectious diseases by providing people with clean syringes and collecting used ones. Though Indiana originally prohibited such programs, the state’s worst-ever HIV outbreak in Scott County, which primarily affected intravenous drug users, prompted lawmakers in 2015 to allow them with state approval.

They have been effective in stemming the outbreak, reducing the transmission of HIV in Scott County, Adams said.

While Adams and Jim McClelland, Holcomb’s newly created executive director for drug prevention, treatment and enforcement, testified in favor of the bill, Hill expressed concerns. He suggested existing needle exchanges have “morphed into a distribution program” that no longer require one-to-one exchanges of a dirty needle for a clean one. Such “net increase” in needles, he said, leads to a greater risk of exposure to the infectious diseases the exchanges were designed to prevent.

When asked by Democratic Rep. Charlie Brown whether he had data or documentation of the disappearance of one-on-one exchanges, Hill said he didn’t have that information and called for a study to determine how pervasive the situation is. Adams later testified that in Scott County, 96 percent of needles have been returned.

In a press release sent out after his statement, Hill stated the bill would only serve to “further trap” addicts in the “vicious cycle of opioid addiction,” but provided no statistics as evidence.

Scott is one of nine counties in Indiana with state approval for needle exchanges, and 15 others are working toward creating their own programs. The exchanges, Adams said, do not enable drug use, and instead give communities the tools they need to stop disease transmission.

In addition to granting local control, the measure authored by Republican Rep. Cindy Kirchhofer maintains the health commissioner’s power to end a program and allows counties that feel more comfortable establishing needle-exchange programs with the state’s emergency declaration to continue to go through the originally established pathway. It also requires exchanges to stock overdose prevention drugs.

The state’s drug issues are not going to be resolved by inaction, McClelland said.

“These programs are not a complete solution, there’s no question about that,” he said. “But they are a vital part of an overall effort to substantially reduce the magnitude of the scourge that every day is destroying lives, devastating families and damaging communities in many parts of our state.”

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