House takes up syringe exchange bill, but with changes

The House of Delegates is considering changes to a bill regulating harm reduction programs that include community syringe exchanges.

Senate Bill 334 has generated significant debate because of the high stakes for communities facing the health consequences of addiction. West Virginia has been among states with the highest rates of death from drug overdoses. West Virginia communities are also at risk for HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks.

The chairman of the House Health Committee said he supports the programs and believes the bill being debated in the Legislature ultimately will help people struggling with addiction and communities coping with addiction issues.

House Health Chairman Jeffrey Pack said the element of the bill receiving the most public interest is the syringe exchange aspect, but he noted that the bill deals more broadly with harm reduction. That includes wellness checks, wound treatment from needle sticks, screening from communicable diseases, vaccination availability and counseling.

“I believe it would be foolhardy for us to bury our head in the sand and suggest that if we do nothing that folks who are addicted to drugs will remarkably recover or find their way into treatment,” Pack, R-Raleigh.

“I think what this program seeks to create is a mechanism whereby folks who unfortunately are addicted can establish a relationship with some sort of harm reduction program and encourage them to access treatment in a forum that perhaps is less intimidating — and they can do so with less fear of judgment or condemnation.”

As it passed from the Senate, the bill would establish a licensing requirement for syringe exchange programs, require a majority of county commissioners to approve a program and require a one-to-one exchange of needles. The Senate also amended in a requirement for sheriffs to express support. The bill would also establish a license revocation process.

Ron Stollings

Critics of the Senate bill said it would be so restrictive that no syringe exchange programs could be sustained in West Virginia.

“I hope the House will be a deliberative body and try to fix some of these onerous restrictive mechanisms in this bill,” Senator Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said as it passed that chamber.

“We’re pouring gasoline on a fire with this bill right here. I am going to be one proud person to vote no on this bill right here. When we talk two or three years down the year, I’m going to say I told you so.”

Pack said he agrees that changes are necessary.

“After looking at the Senate’s work product, we recognized perhaps some changes were necessary to bring it into guidance from the CDC and AMA,” Pack said today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

The House Health Committee was meeting at 4:30 p.m. Thursday in the House Chamber with the bill on its agenda. The bill has a second reference to House Judiciary.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention says syringe exchange programs are an important way of reducing HIV and hepatitis C infections.

“For people who inject drugs, the best way to reduce the risk of acquiring and transmitting disease through injection drug use is to stop injecting drugs,” according to the CDC.

“For people who do not stop injecting drugs, using sterile injection equipment for each injection can reduce the risk of acquiring and transmitting infections and prevent outbreaks.”

The House Health Committee was preparing to amend its own bill into the one that passed the Senate today. Pack described several changes:

The new bill would require state licensure and reporting requirements including the number of people served, the number of syringes dispensed and returned and the number of needle-stick injuries observed. It implements some immunity requirements for trace, residual amounts of drugs in syringes.

Pack said the new bill requires harm reduction programs to exercise some elements of control over the program including needle cleanup in communities.

Pack said the bill asserts a goal of a one-for-one syringe exchange, but doesn’t explicitly require that. “What it does require is that syringes be unique to the program,” he said. “There are mechanisms whereby these syringes can be easily identified to a program in a certain community.”

Direct oversight by county commissions and sheriffs initially was taken out of the House bill, but Pack predicted some committee members would want to bring it back.

“I’m not certain it will remain out. I know there are some folks who are proponents of that,” he said.

In fact, when the Health Committee met late Thursday afternoon, most delegates voted to put the role for county commissioners back into the bill.

“On a personal note,” Pack said, “I don’t have any opposition to county commissions or even municipalities having a voice on whether these programs take place in their communities. I do have some hesitation with sheriffs receiving a veto power on that.”


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