Research shows that syringe (or needle) service programs can reduce the outbreak of infectious diseases prevalent among intravenous drug users. A bill in the Indiana General Assembly seeks to remove barriers to creating new programs in the state. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University
Research shows that syringe (or needle) service programs can reduce the outbreak of infectious diseases prevalent among intravenous drug users. A bill in the Indiana General Assembly seeks to remove barriers to creating new programs in the state. Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Senate failed to pass a bill that would have extended the sunset clause for syringe service programs in the state, meaning that the state’s programs in nine counties could cease to exist next year.

Research shows that programs exchanging syringes prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

Syringe service programs emerged in Indiana after a 2015 HIV outbreak in Scott County and were set to sunset, or end, next year.

Sen. Jim Merritt (R-Indianapolis) introduced a bill that would eliminate the sunset provision and also eliminated a “bureaucratic hurdle” that required counties to declare a public health emergency before a program could be established.

“Harm reduction is a major part of beating this enemy,” Merritt said about drug addiction. “It has broken up so many families in this state.”

To counter arguments about enabling IV drug use, Merritt asked senators whether providing Narcan, a life-saving drug to counter overdoses, or allowing judges to offer drug addiction deferment programs also enabled drug use.

“All I’m trying to do is keep those needle exchanges … and not be under the gun next year,” Merritt said.

The bill died on the Senate floor Tuesday with 27 no votes, all from Republicans.

Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, testified of the negative effects he said the Madison County syringe service program had on his community, saying he tried to defund the program while on the Madison County Council.

Gaskill, one of the no votes, said public disposal of needles increased, law enforcement didn’t support the effort and Narcan administration increased with the program’s implementation.

Madison County’s needle exchange program is now administered by Aspire Indiana Health.

Several Republicans voted for the bill, including Sen. Michael Crider (R-Greenfield), who gave personal testimony from his experience in law enforcement.

Crider said he’d held hands with grieving parents, witnessed people struggle to overcome addiction and seen people re-use needles so thin that they broke on contact.

“I wish we didn’t have to pass out needles but I will tell you that if we don’t do it you can go to Tractor Supply and buy the same thing,” Crider said. “I will tell you that I don’t like needle exchanges but, based on what I know, there is no way I can vote against a bill like this.”

Eric Yazel, the Clark County health officer who oversees the area’s syringe service program, said last week in an interview that if people don’t understand the humanitarian aspect to syringe service programs, which provide peer recovery coaches and free testing in addition to clean syringes, he tries to win them over with a financial argument.

“Through our program we’ve diagnosed almost 100 cases of hepatitis … we’ve identified cases of HIV as well. Our skin and soft tissues infections locally are down about 30%,” Yazel said. “On a low-end estimate it saves our county about $2 million.”

The Indiana State Department of Health reports that statewide over 8,500 Hoosiers have participated in these nine county programs, with an average syringe return rate of about 82%.

“(There’s) a rapport that the personnel have with the people that come to the program. They know them by name, they know where they’re out and whether they’re ready for recovery,” Yazel said. “If you say that you’re in a place where you’re ready to get some help and stop using … (We) can sit down and talk with you and take you directly to a recovery place.”
© 2020 Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.