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Senate harm reduction bill

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, answers questions from Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, foreground, about an amendment on Senate Bill 334 on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate on Tuesday passed a bill that one senator said would lead to the closure of 16 syringe exchange programs in the state.

Senate Bill 334 establishes a licensing program within the Department of Health and Human Resources for harm reduction programs operating syringe exchange programs.

All new and existing programs will need to apply to the Office for Health Facility Licensure and Certification. Programs will need to have support of the county commission and, as amended on the floor Tuesday, the county sheriff. They will be required to pay an application fee and have a 30-day comment period.

Programs will be required to offer a full array of harm reduction services, such as HIV testing, not just syringe exchanges. Any current program offering just syringe services must cease and desist operation six months after passage of the bill.

Exchanges will have to operate toward a 1:1 exchange rate and be able to track syringes. A person must be designated to track and collect any needle litter. Participants must have a valid West Virginia I.D. and cannot receive needles for another person.

Licenses will need to be renewed yearly. Amendments to exempt current programs from the yearly renewal process failed.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, called the bill anti-harm reduction and said 16 programs in the state will cease to operate under the bill. The physician attempted to amend the bill, rewriting it to include the licensing but with an opioid tax to help fund needle litter pickup and research on exchange programs. His amendment failed.

“I just want you all to think and remember Scott County, Indiana, and I want you all to think about the future of West Virginia,” Stollings said, referring to a county that, from 2011-14, was the site of a severe HIV outbreak among people who inject drugs, with a cluster of 215 infections linked to the outbreak. Studies later showed that if state officials had stepped up HIV screening and treatment efforts, including a temporary needle exchange program, in 2011, there would have been far fewer cases.

“… When we talk in two or three years, I’m going to tell you I told you so,” Stollings added.

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, lead sponsor of the bill, defended the legislation by saying “bad actors” in the state need to be held accountable. He railed on needle litter, and said law enforcement were in favor of the bill to deter crime.

But studies show syringe exchanges do not lead to an increase of needle litter or crime. Instead, these programs prevent disease, thus saving lives and money.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say people who inject drugs and use syringe exchanges are more likely to enter treatment for substance use disorder and stop injecting than those who don’t use an exchange. New users of syringe exchanges are five times as likely to enter drug treatment as those who don’t use the programs. People who inject drugs and who have used an exchange regularly are nearly three times as likely to report a reduction in injection frequency as those who have never used an exchange program.

The CDC also says exchange programs help reduce disease. The estimated lifetime cost of treating one person living with HIV is more than $450,000. Hospitalizations in the U.S. for substance use-related infections cost more than $700 million each year.

CDC studies have also found that restricting access to these programs reduce their efficiency. A CDC report found Cabell County’s HIV outbreak started after the harm reduction program was restricted.

West Virginia already has two HIV outbreaks of concern in Cabell and Kanawha counties. The Charleston outbreak is the most concerning in the country, according to the CDC.

The bill passed 23-11. Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, voted against the bill. He said he was against syringe exchange programs when one was started when he was a member of the county board of health. He said he’s since changed his mind.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, voted for the bill after saying he was on the fence. He told Health Committee chair Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, he wanted to make sure the bill would not close harm reduction programs. Maroney said he did not believe it would, and if he believed it would, it would be a bad bill.

Woelfel also said he took exception to the finger-pointing at Huntington’s syringe exchange.

“I have never seen one damn needle, and my office is downtown,” Woelfel said.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

Reporter Taylor Stuck can be reached at tstuck@hdmediallc.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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