Congress considers lifting ban on funding needle exchange programs

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (July 21, 2015) - There's talk that Congress could lift its ban on offering federal funding for needle exchange programs. That talk is timely in Indiana, as two of those programs were put in place just this year, aimed at curbing HIV and Hepatitis C infections, by IV drug users.

Scott County's had their needle exchange program in place since the spring, after the historic HIV outbreak. Madison County will start their exchange in two weeks.

It is a small stockpile, but the supplies like syringes, tests, and pamphlets are already at the Madison County Health Department in Anderson. The agency has $26,000 to spend on its needle exchange program, one that will start on August 5.

"We're looking at all the local budgets trying to determine what we can purchase with what money, and it would sure be nice if we had a funding source that was specific or available without having to sort through it. That would be quite helpful," said Stephenie Grimes, Public Health Coordinator.

Problem is for Grimes state and federal money cannot be used to fund needle exchange programs. Congress banned federal funding for exchanges in the late 1980s. It got lifted briefly a few years ago but quickly reinstated.

"Now, because Congress has seen the magnitude of what can happen if individuals don't have access to clean syringes, Congress has had an important conversation about evolving their policy to allow for federal resources to support these programs," said Kali Lindsey, Deputy Director of amFAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.

Lindsey said the HIV outbreak in Scott County sparked Congressional attention. He said language to remove the ban is sitting in various appropriations bills in the House and the Senate.

"The change in policy does not add new money to HIV prevention activities, it just takes away the restriction from the use of existing HIV prevention federal resources to support these programs," said Lindsey.

The perception change is one Stephenie Grimes welcomes, with a needle exchange headed to Madison County in two weeks. She said any extra funds that could come soon after wouldn't hurt, either.

"There have been some even locally, county-wide, who weren't open to it initially. With more information, more education, I feel like some minds have been changed, and so that's a start," Grimes said.

Language to remove the federal ban is also tied in with language to defund Obamacare, so if those bills make it to President Obama's desk, they'll likely be vetoed, Lindsey said.

The agency believes there is new hope that Congress can work out a compromise on federal funding for needle exchange programs before the August recess.

Appropriations talk is stalled, however,  as lawmakers debate the confederate flag.

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