Florida lawmakers could expand needle-exchange program statewide

Two years after lawmakers approved a needle-and-syringe exchange program in Miami-Dade County, the House and Senate are considering taking it statewide and expanding the types of providers who can offer the services.

House and Senate health care-panels on Wednesday approved bills that would allow hospitals, clinics, medical schools and substance-abuse treatment programs to begin offering needle-and-syringe exchange programs to try to reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated cost nearly $380,000 to treat over a lifetime.

Before agreeing to pass the House version of the bill (HB 579), the House Health Quality Subcommittee tagged on an amendment that makes clear the Florida Department of Health wouldn’t “establish” the programs and only would be informed when they are created.

The bills were identical before the House members added the amendment. Senate bill sponsor Oscar Braynon, D-Miami, said he wanted to talk to the health department about the amendment before he decides whether to include it in his version (SB 800).

The bills would expand the initial “Infectious Disease Elimination Act” or IDEA, which was passed by the Legislature in 2016 and authorized the University of Miami to operate a needle-and-syringe exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade.

The 2016 law also made clear that any people or staff members participating in the pilot program do not violate the Florida Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which makes it a first-degree misdemeanor for people who use or plan to use drug paraphernalia.

Dubbed the IDEA Exchange, the pilot program offers free, clean, unused needles and syringes to intravenous drug users as a way to prevent the transmission of hepatitis B and C as well as human immunodeficiency virus. No state money can be used to help fund the program, and the university must keep records of what it has accomplished.

Between Dec. 1, 2016 and July 31, 2017, the program provided 44,497 clean, unused syringes in exchange for 50,509 used syringes. Initially, the program was offered at a fixed location, but it began providing what it calls ‘backpacking” services, offered by people on foot, in May.

The university reports that since the program’s inception, 43 people have been referred for substance-abuse treatment; 266 people have been given HIV or hepatitis C tests; nine people have been referred for HIV treatment; 35 have been referred for hepatitis C treatment; and 251 doses of naloxone have been given to program participants and their family members, resulting in 73 overdose reversals.

Initially, the Legislature approved the pilot program for a five-year period, but the bills would allow the pilot to operate until July 1, 2023, along with any newly authorized programs.

Braynon, whose bill was approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, said he is confident lawmakers will agree to make the programs permanent as they continue to review the data.

“I do want to collect the evidence to show people this is how we really combat substance abuse,” said Braynon, the Senate minority leader.

The House subcommittee voted unanimously to pass the bill, and primary sponsor Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, encouraged committee members to join him in sponsoring the measure.

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