Indiana lawmakers reach proposed compromise to expand needle exchanges as HIV epidemic worsens

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INDIANAPOLIS (April 28, 2015) – As Indiana’s legislative session near an end, lawmakers have reached an agreement to expand needle exchange programs to Indiana counties highest at risk for an HIV epidemic.

Rep. Ed Clere (R-New Albany) said Tuesday afternoon the proposal was working through its final steps before an expected vote Wednesday in the House and Senate.

“It will involve a local process, and once that local process occurs, the state health commissioner will have the final say about whether needle exchange will be allowed,” he said.

Counties would have to demonstrate an epidemic of Hepatitis C or HIV to qualify, Clere said, although the term epidemic would remain undefined.

“I think it will satisfy a lot of folks,” he said. “There will be some folks who won’t be able to support it, but we’ve worked hard with the administration and legislators.”

State health officials announced Tuesday 143 people have tested positive for HIV in Scott and Jackson counties. In Scott County, where a temporary needle exchange program is under way, an estimated 7,146 needles have been distributed to 166 residents.

“This is an all-hands on deck situation,” Jerome Adams said, Indiana’s health commissioner. “It’s why we’ve got top officials from the CDC here.”

Those officials, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, met with Gov. Mike Pence Monday and spent Tuesday in Scott County assessing the state’s response.

“People need to have access to services that are going to help them stop injecting, and if they do inject, do it safely,” Jonathan Mermin said, the CDC’s national director for HIV/AIDS. “That has to be a comprehensive response.”

State lawmakers have been working for weeks on a measure to allow counties to operate a needle exchange program. Critics of the state’s response have called for a comprehensive, statewide exchange. But opponents, including a number of lawmakers, fear it will promote drug use.

“There are those who are adamantly opposed to the needle exchange program in general and those who are fans,” House Speaker Brian Bosma said. “And then many of us in the center that realize it is an appropriate issue when there is a crisis as we have going on in Scott County right now.”

Pence has said publicly numerous times he opposes needle exchange programs, but made the temporary exception in Scott County because of the HIV epidemic.

Clere said lawmakers have been working closely with the governor’s administration to craft final language that Pence could sign.

“I know it’s an uncomfortable conversation for a lot of folks,” Clere said. “But it’s a really important conversation for us to have right now. I wish it weren’t in response to a crisis, but I’m glad we’re having the conversation, and I think this legislation has the potential to help a lot of communities and save lives.”

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