Justice secretary, drug-policy chief and ex-health boss back needle exchanges but ‘political rhetoric’ can trump science

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

CORBIN, Ky. – Local officials and legislators continue to debate and sometimes reject needle exchanges, but two state officials and a former state health commissioner voiced their strong support of them at a pubic forum May 17 in Corbin.

Dr. William Hacker:
“Needle exchanges work.”

“Needle exchanges work,” said Dr. William Hacker, chair of Shaping Our Appalachian Region‘s Health and Wellness Advisory Committee and former state health commissioner. “We would, as a public health role, encourage them to be extended.”

Hacker spoke at the “Cumberland River Forum on Opioid Use Disorders: A Time for Community Change,” one of three public forums on the subject in Kentucky in May.

The General Assembly authorized needle exchanges in the 2015 anti-heroin bill, as a way to decrease the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, which are commonly spread by the sharing of needles among intravenous drug users. They require both local approval and funding.

Kentucky’s rate of hepatitis C is the highest in the nation, and a recent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said that of the 200 counties in the nation that are most susceptible to a hepatitis C or HIV outbreak, 54 of them are in Kentucky.

So far, only 14 counties in Kentucky have either approved or are operating needle exchanges: Jefferson, Fayette, Jessamine, Franklin, Clark, Kenton, Grant, Harrison, Pendleton, Carter, Boyd, Elliott, Pike and Knox.

Justice Secretary John Tilley:
“Real facts and real science”

Justice Secretary John Tilley, who was instrumental in getting the heroin bill passed when he was a state representative from Hopkinsville, encouraged communities to look at the evidence-based research that supports needle-exchange programs and to not listen to the political rhetoric.

“We’ve got to push aside this political rhetoric on topics like this one and talk about real facts and real science,” he said. “These programs have been validated by meta-analysis. … Those who seek out a needle exchange are five times more likely to enter treatment. These programs continue to beat back blood-borne illnesses like hepatitis C and HIV, at rates we cannot duplicate without these programs. They are universally successful at what they do.”

Tilley said after the meeting that addiction is a chronic disease and should be treated as a public-health crisis, noting that other diseases are treated based on science and medicine, not opinion.

“When you go to the doctor, you don’t ask him his political view of a particular health program,” he said. “Well, this is no different. And for me to substitute my judgment for the science is dangerous.”

Van Ingram changed his mind

Van Ingram, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, said his opinion about needle exchanges changed after he researched them and learned how effective they are at decreasing the spread of hepatitis C and HIV. He also noted that these programs provide testing and treatment referral for these infectious diseases, and also help participants get treatment.

“Eleven years ago I left law enforcement, and if you had told me that I would end up being the poster boy for syringe exchange, I would have said you were crazy,” he said. “But quite honestly, they do work.”

Ingram also noted the CDC study and reminded the audience of the “enormous” HIV outbreak that occurred last year in Scott County, Indiana, 30 miles north of Louisville.

“So if a syringe exchange can keep us from having a rapid HIV outbreak, I think that is probably a good trade-off,” Ingram said.

But evidence-based research isn’t always enough to convince policy makers that needle exchange programs don’t condone or perpetuate drug use.

The Georgetown newspaper answered its
question in its story. The answer is yes.

Last week it was reported that two Kentucky counties decided against needle exchanges. Boone County’s Fiscal Court silently said no to a needle exchange by refusing to call up a resolution to support one, Mark Hansel reported for NKyTribune. And the Scott County Fiscal Court voted 5-3 against one, Dan Adkins reported for the Georgetown News-Graphic. Adkins followed up with a featured front-page story about the county’s heroin problem.

A point of contention among Republicans in the General Assembly is that some of the exchanges don’t require a needle-for-needle exchange, which they say was their intent.

Then-Attorney General Jack Conway said Dec. 18 that needle exchanges did not have to be one-for-one. It is also widely accepted that not requiring one-for-one is considered a best practice across the country to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C and to stop intravenous drug users from sharing and reusing needles, Dr. Sarah Moyer, the interim director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, told Kentucky Health News in March.

Last session, as the Senate voted to amend House Bill 160 to require one-to-one exchanges, Senate Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown threatened to file a bill to eliminate them altogether next session if they don’t make this change during the upcoming year.

In its original form, HB 160 was a bill to educate the public about how to safely dispose of hypodermic needles in order to keep them out of landfills. The House let the bill die without another vote.

Tilley said after the meeting, “Culture and change takes a while,” and noted that while he respected his colleagues differing opinions, he said it is likely that this topic is not in their “wheelhouse.”

“So, I think the more they learn the more they will come along,” he said. “What we should do is all come back to the table and talk about how the programs that are now in place in Kentucky are working and how the reliance on science and evidence based policy makes them work.”

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