PDT Staff Writer
The Harm Reduction Coalition has reported that language authorizing the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs has been included in the U.S. Senate’s Fiscal Year 2013 Labor, Health & Human Services appropriations bill. Funding had been approved for FY 2010 and 2011, but the formerly longstanding ban on federal funding was reinstated in December for FY 2012.
“I’m smiling,” Bobbi Bratchett of the Portsmouth City Health Department said when informed that the program had been re-inserted in the appropriations bill. “This is good news if it stays in there.”
Bratchett has operated a syringe exchange program since March 2011, and since beginning the program, has seen 20,000 needed exchanged, which she says takes dangerous used needles out of public areas. However, Bratchett has been forced to operate the program with no funding and no budget. One of the problems has been the removal of the program from the federal appropriations bill. Now, there is a glimmer of hope, since it has been included in the Senate’s fiscal year 2013 Labor, Health & Human Services appropriations bill. But it is not without opposition.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is expected to again vote for the ban on needle exchange funding in its version of the appropriations bill. Having funding language in the Senate version will give Senate negotiators something to negotiate on needle exchange when the bills are reconciled, which probably won’t happen until after the November elections.
Chris Krueger of the AIDS Task Force of Greater Cleveland, told the Portsmouth Daily Times on Wednesday that if the funds remain in the LH&H bill, it could allow the possibility of federal funds to be used for syringe exchange programs.
If the funding remains, Bratchett said the Portsmouth Health Department would apply for the funds, but to do that, there are obstacles to overcome in Ohio first.
Krueger said for a syringe exchange program to exist in Ohio an emergency order has to be issued by the Health Department, which Krueger referred to as a “loophole.” He said it is currently illegal to operate a needle exchange program under Ohio law because of the drug paraphernalia law, which states that it is illegal to give out a syringe, saying it is a drug abuse instrument.
“Right now, actually we do have legislation that is in the House — it’s House Bill 182,” Krueger said. “And this legislation would change the process — instead of being an emergency order, it would explicitly allow the programs to exist, and it means the board of health would make a decision then on whether they are going to have a program or not.”
The decision to move forward with the syringe exchange program was made last year by the Portsmouth City Board of Health.
In Ohio, Portsmouth is one of only two cities currently operating a syringe exchange program. Cincinnati officials authorized a program in that city, but have not moved forward since the Prosecutor’s office has threatened to prosecute anyone exchanging a used needle.
The Senate appropriations bill also includes some other harm reduction news. In its non-binding report, it calls for an overdose prevention public awareness campaign. That report does not specifically mention the anti-overdose drug naloxone, which the Coalition had sought, and the Coalition said it would continue to lobby on that issue.
And, like last year, the bill includes $10 million for viral hepatitis screening. The funding announcement for those dollars from last year’s bill has now been released and includes $1.6 million for hepatitis C testing and referrals to programs reaching out to injection drug users, including needle exchanges.
Scioto County has led the state in cases of hepatitis C, but Bratchett said numbers have decreased 17 percent since the inception of the syringe exchange program.
The report accompanying the FY 2013 bill also “notes the high incidence of hepatitis among injection drug users and urges SAMHSA to implement viral hepatitis testing as a standard of care in drug-treatment programs, consistent with the HHS Action Plan for the Prevention, Care and Treatment of Viral Hepatitis.”
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 232, or at email@example.com.