Bill to keep dirty needles out of landfills hijacked with amendment to require needle-exchange programs to be one-for-one

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

A House bill to educate the public about how to safely dispose of hypodermic needles easily passed was hit with a surprise amendment that would require a one-for-one needle exchange at needle exchange programs.

Rep. Mike Denham

The amended bill, which passed at the March 9 Senate Health and Welfare Committee meeting and now goes to the Senate floor, didn’t set well with its sponsor, who said the amendment took him by surprise.

“At first blush, I have real problems with it,” Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville, said in an interview. He said the amended bill would likely not pass in the House, but said he would review it and then decide whether to concur or not. He said he had already received emails and texts from his constituents telling him they did not support the committee substitute.

The original bill, House Bill 160, would require the state Department for Public Health to establish guidelines for disposal of hypodermic syringes, needles and other sharps used for home medical purposes and disseminate educational materials to pharmacies and the public. It was written to increase the safety of landfill workers who are at constant risk of being stuck by improperly disposed of needles.

Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, while supporting the original bill, voted no on the substitute and told the committee that the Louisville needle exchange program does not have a one-to-one requirement and is working well. “The effort here is to diminish disease,” she said.

Sen. Ralph Alvarado

Needle exchanges were approved as part of an anti-heroin bill in 2015. Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado, a Winchester physician, who voted for the substitute, said in an interview that the intent of the law was to only allow a one-to-one needle exchange. He said many senators would have voted against that measure if they had known exchanges did not have to be one-for-one.

The Office of the Attorney General released a formal opinion Dec. 18 that said needle-exchange programs in the state do not have to have a one-for-one exchange. The opinion was requested by state Senate President Robert Stivers of Manchester, who along with other Republicans, also say that the intent of the law was a one-for-one exchange.

Alvarado criticized then-Attorney General Jack Conway’s opinion: “That wasn’t how it was presented originally to the state.” He added, “The one-for-one encourages more interaction, more opportunity for involvement for the provider to provide treatment for their disorders, to test them for communicable diseases and that sort of thing.”

Dr. Sarah Moyer, the interim director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness, said in an e-mail that not requiring a one-to-one exchange has been proven to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C, which is the intent of the program. Kentucky leads the nation in hepatitis C and suffers more than 1,000 drug overdose deaths a year.

“A one-to-one syringe exchange implies that no needle sharing is occurring,” Moyer wrote. “We know that is not the case. The ‘needs-based negation model’ is a best practice across the country. Our goals are to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C in our community and to stop intravenous drug users from sharing and reusing needles. The program is working! Participants continue to return used and potentially infected syringes for sterile ones.”

She added, “Our latest figures indicate that one syringe is being returned for every 1.3 syringes distributed among returning clients. Overall the rate is 1 to 1.7. We have more than 2,000 participants and the number continues to grow. We’ve tested approximately 500 for hepatitis C and HIV and referred those who test positive to medical treatment. We’ve also referred 143 individuals to drug treatment.”

Alvarado said, “Even if the health departments want to do it this way now, that is not how the law was intentionally meant to be passed.”

Needle-exchange programs operating or approved in the state are in Jefferson, Fayette, Grant, Pendleton, Carter, Elliott, Franklin and Jessamine counties.

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