A key Republican senator says she’s open to needle exchange legislation but needs the go-ahead from her GOP caucus to sign on.
Public Health Chairman Pat Miller, R-Indianapolis, said after two hours of sometimes-emotional testimony on the proposal that she wants to add a sunset to the bill, meaning that lawmakers would have to reapprove the legislation in 2017 to keep the programs in place.
But Miller – who previously opposed needle exchange programs – said the state is facing an emergency in Scott County, where roughly 130 intravenous drug users have been diagnosed with HIV. She said something needs to be done now.
“Indiana is in a terrible position. I’m heart sick about the disease and the epidemic we have in Scott County,” Miller said. “ I’m just sorry we have that here in Indiana. But we need to address it.”
On Monday, Gov. Mike Pence extended a public health emergency for Scott County for an additional 30 days. That move allows the state to continue operating a temporary needle exchange program in the county, something the Indiana State Department of Health has said is otherwise illegal.
But Dr. Shane Avery, a physician in Scottsburg, near the epicenter of the HIV outbreak, told lawmakers Monday that a temporary program isn’t enough. He said a short-term program encourages drug users to hoard clean needles rather than exchange them while a longer-term program could build trust that leads addicts to be safer.
“This HIV epidemic is not something that will go away in a few months,” he said. “It’s here to stay.”
Avery called on the state to do more to extend health, testing and needle exchange services beyond Scott County, saying there’s plenty of evidence that infected residents have left the area to use drugs in other counties or had sex with people traveling through the region.
“If Gov. Pence and the Indiana General Assembly fail to act, then God have mercy on us,” Avery said.
Pence has opposed an ongoing needle exchange and has said he’s only approved the targeted, temporary program to address an emergency. Avery said local health officials are grateful for the help they’ve received but desperate for more.
“It is the governor’s refusal to address this situation that will result in Indiana’s most historic failure in public health,” he said.
Miller said the proposed legislation is important because Pence can only act every 30 days to extend several programs, including the current needle exchange. But she said the legislative needle proposal – crafted by Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany – needs work. She wants to change the way counties qualify to participate and let medical providers weigh in on the process.
Miller said she also has to consult the other GOP members of the Senate. Republican senators can’t sign on to a legislative compromise without permission from their caucus.
“We have not had one word in my caucus yet about needle exchange,” Miller said.
Houchin said she’s worried the legislature is “putting the cart before the horse” by creating a needle exchange program without the drug treatment services necessary to help addicts get clean. And Brown said she’s concerned that a needle program might increase drug use.
But Brenda Patterson of Indianapolis said that when her daughter was battling a heroin addiction, she decided to let her have the clean needles she’d purchased for her diabetic son.
After her daughter’s multiple failed rehab attempts, Patterson said it was more important that she prevent her daughter, who was also suffering from cystic fibrosis, from contracting an illness from a dirty needle.
“I’m still not past worrying about what people think of me with a daughter who has heroin and a mother who would provide the needle,” Patterson acknowledged. “What I do know is this: Giving her clean needles didn’t stop or not stop her from using heroin at all. Without a needle, she used dirty needles.”
Patterson said her daughter is now four years sober – but it’s not because she took away her needles. She urged the committee to pass a needle exchange program to help people like her daughter be safer until they can get treatment and get off drugs.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.