BUCKHANNON — The Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department is anxiously awaiting expected legislation that will impact the local syringe access program, as well as others across the state.
On February 18, WV Senators Eric Tarr and Amy Grady introduced Senate Bill 334—a legislative movement seeking to establish license application processes for needle exchange programs. Originating from the Committee on Health and Human Resources, SB 334 proposes revisions on public health outreach organizations and establishes new mandates for public health operations. Due to the strict proposition of the bill, many public health officials are now concerned for the future of state health and the people who depend on these facilities.
On Tuesday, March 2, legislators pushed an amended version of SB 334 that many officials fear will destroy and prevent harm reduction facilities from functioning. Statehouse reporter Erin Beck said that critics of the bill “would likely put syringe exchange programs out of business.”
The bill has passed through Health and Human Resources Committee for revisions and is currently waiting on its second reading and final review Thursday before this legislative session concludes.
No Appalachian is unfamiliar with the opioid epidemic in our state. A countless number of individuals suffered from the impact of pharmaceutical overload. Now, in the aftermath, many harm reduction organizations have answered the call to provide the population with assured services. This includes safe needle exchange programs.
This past year, CDC officials such as Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, Director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, noted that Kanawha County’s HIV outbreak “is the most concerning in the United States.” Kanawha’s current case rates are reportedly higher than largely populated areas such as New York City. One method of combatting this rise in blood bourn illness is through the practice of needle exchange, but in Charleston, that is no longer the case.
With the pending legislation, any harm reduction facility that offers a needle exchange operation will require licensing to conduct their services. The bill moves to change the needle exchange rate to a 1:1 ratio and restricts funding for these primarily non-profit organizations. The most recent amendment allows harm reduction facilities to operate without the approval of County Commissions and elected Sheriffs, but if it passes, harm reduction operations would at the mercy of City Councils. Critics worry that this would complicate matters and tie up these much-needed programs in bureaucratic processes.
Senator Tarr stated that one purpose of the bill was to prevent dirty needles from littering the streets, but critics of the bill think otherwise. Needle exchange programs have been scientifically proven to reduce the needle waste and lower crime rates in the areas which they serve.
Organizations such as SOAR WV (Solutions Oriented Addiction Response) are in the direct line of fire for this bill. SOAR is a non-profit harm reduction outreach program that started last year in response to the rise of HIV cases in Kanawha County. Courtney Dowell, a volunteer coordinator for SOAR, stated that SB 334 “would render about every harm reduction facility illegal” in the state and would, “limit the good that we can do.”
Many public health officials are terrified for the future of state health if the bill passes. Now that the CDC has acknowledged the potential threat to public health, officials are scrambling to get the word out. Critics warn if harm reduction facilities are shut down, the HIV rate will likely explode. Organizations like SOAR hope for the bill to get struck down, claiming that it would do more harm than good. Dowell also stated that the bill “comes from a misunderstanding and could not work” with the current HIV issues.
One of the biggest concern’s critics propose is the impact the bill will have on the dependent population. Due to the lingering effects of the opioid crisis, many people still use and will continue to do so until provided the proper support. Harm reduction offers more than just clean needles. Supporters of SOAR have compared it to an interactive community health fair. They offer food, medical care, safe sex supplies, conduct HIV tests, and implement rehab opportunities for anyone who is ready to quit. SOAR constantly has rehab coaches at every open event. However, with the changes that the bill proposes, the population is concerned. Dowell stated, “People are afraid to get help. They think they will get in trouble.”
Here in Upshur County, the harm reduction project known as the LIGHT (Living In Good Health Together) Program is working with the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department to fight the rising threat of HIV. The LIGHT Program administered by Health Right from Morgantown provides more than just clean needles. U-BHD Nurse Director Susan McKisic explained that this program is here to “control and prevent the influence of disease” and supply the dependent population with other forms of medical care. Much like SOAR, The LIGHT Program offers rehab opportunities and Narcan to decrease overdoses. McKisic stated, “We are not teaching people to shoot up, but to be clean and safe.”
Health Right Coordinator Laura Jones said the bill would change “the manner in which we are required to operate [and would implement] a service that isn’t the best method of combatting HIV and Hep C.” If the bill passes, the LIGHT Program would have to withdraw their services in Upshur and Preston counties. Jones worries that “HIV outbreaks will pop-up all over the state [and] the bill would put a chokehold on harm reduction at a time when it needs to be expanded.”
The biggest victim of SB 334 seems to be the people who need these facilities, not harm reduction organizations. Jones added, “We don’t know how it will affect us; we don’t want to lose our people. If you take away needles, you will see a program disappear.”
Only time will tell what the influence of SB 334 will mean for West Virginia and the future of state health.