The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources says it will not audit the Cabell-Huntington Health Department's syringe exchange program, despite the request of Cabell County Commissioner Kelli Sobonya.
Sobonya made the request as a Cabell County resident, not on behalf of the commission. In particular, she wants to know if the syringe exchange program and other social service programs attract a transient population to Huntington.
DHHR's decision to not perform an audit came after a closed-door meeting in Charleston last month. At the meeting were DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch, State Health Officer Dr. Cathy Slemp, and Bob Hansen, director of the Office of Drug Control Policy. Cabell Delegates John Mandt Jr., Matthew Rohrbach and Chad Lovejoy also attended. According to a DHHR spokesman, the consensus of those at the meeting was that the audit was not needed. Sobonya, however, contends that an audit is still necessary and said DHHR was simply unwilling to pay for it. She said the state department had set a precedent after it funded an audit of Kanawha-Charleston's syringe exchange, and she said it was unfair DHHR would not do the same for Cabell-Huntington.
"I just want an audit," Sobonya said last week. "I have not publicly asked for this program to end; I just want to know that it's working."
Sobonya had requested an audit similar to what DHHR had compiled for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's syringe exchange, which revealed several problems in the way that program operated. The Kanawha County program has since been terminated.
The Cabell-Huntington program, however, operates in a different manner and has not received anywhere near the criticism the Kanawha County program did.
Sobonya's concerns raise a valid question: Has Huntington become a magnet for IV drug users? If so, shouldn't other counties establish their own needle exchange programs so Huntington doesn't become a dumping ground for their problems?
Huntington offers a wide range of services for people who need them. The needle exchange program is a service intended to reduce the amount of needle litter that just a few years ago was more of a problem than it is now. The fact that the health department takes in more needles than it gives out indicates the program is a success.
So why haven't other counties - the ones with their own problems with IV drug use - undertaken similar programs? Because of the expense? Or because they don't want their counties to become magnets for people with addictions, and they would rather their addicts travel to Huntington or elsewhere for their needles or for treatment. Why should larger counties pay?
Mandt, Rohrbach and other legislators representing Cabell County should ask for a legislative audit of the needle exchange program's residency requirement to determine if Cabell County is being asked to foot the bill for other counties' problems. If not, the question ends there. If so, then what can the Legislature do to stem this migration and enable people to receive treatment closer to home?
As had been said in this space before, these are questions that need to be answered. Huntington is indeed a city of refuge for people who have been kicked down the stairs of life. Some are here because of their own bad decisions. Others are here through no fault of their own.
Let's not use the needle exchange program to drive them away. Let's do, however, get some answers so the whole state can take steps toward reducing bloodborne illness that comes with the sharing of used needles.