ANDERSON – The 2-year-old needle exchange program in Madison County is now in limbo after funding for the program was ended by the County Council on Tuesday.
After a lengthy debate, the council adopted an ordinance prohibiting the use of county funds to pay for the staff of the Madison County Health Department to operate the needle exchange program or to buy supplies.
Earlier this year, the Madison County commissioners voted unanimously to extend the program for an additional year because a public health emergency was declared over concerns of the spread of hepatitis C and HIV in the county.A
John Richwine, president of the Board of County Commissioners, said Wednesday the council's action overstepped its authority.
“Is the County Council trying to set policy? Yes,” he said. “Who enforces the policies? The commissioners. This could all be meaningless.”
Richwine said the county is mandated to have a health department and the council is mandated to fund the department.
“The commissioners wouldn’t have voted to approve the program for another year if we didn’t think it was necessary,” he said. “We gave it a lot of thought and consideration and looked at all the factors.”
Richwine said former Gov. Mike Pence and Gov. Eric Holcomb have supported the needle exchange programs in the state.
“The Legislature gave the commissioners the voice on the program,” he said.
Richwine said he would support turning the program over to a not-for-profit organization, adding it might be the right direction to take.
Syringe-exchange programs are locally run, and these are local decisions, Jennifer O’Malley, director of public affairs for the Indiana State Department of Health, said.
Steve Ford, Madison County Health Department administrator, said Wednesday it is his understanding the program came to an end effective immediately.
“We didn’t anticipate this action,” he said.
Steve Sumner, president of the Madison County Council, said the ordinance approved by the council didn’t ban a needle exchange program. It only prohibited the use of county funds.
“Several government entities, including the state legislature, have authorized the program,” he said. “What the council did was say there is no appropriation of money at this time for the program. We could look at it in the future.”
Ford said what happens to the existing stock of needles and other supplies associated with the program remains an unknown.
At last week's special meeting of the Madison County Board of Health, program coordinator Stephenie Grimes said there have been discussions about turning the operation of the program to a local not-for-profit organization.
Of the seven other needle exchange programs in Indiana, only the Monroe County Health Department oversees a program operated by a not-for-profit organization.
“We have talked with a not-for-profit,” Ford said. “Like in Monroe County, where there was no additional funding or staffing for their health department, it was determined the program was not sustainable.
“Two years ago when we started the program in Madison County we didn’t know how long we could operate the program,” he said. “We were looking at tweaking the model we were using.”
Ford said he doesn't know if the Health Department could allow a nonprofit to operate the needle exchange program with oversight by the department.
Sumner said the Health Department could oversee a needle exchange program operated by a not-for-profit organization, but would have to get council approval to pay an employee to perform that oversight.
“The Board of Health could oversee a program operated by a not-for-profit,” he said.