Orlando Weekly: “Florida lawmakers try again to expand needle exchange program throughout state”

 In News & Updates

A bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers is trying again to push a bill that would expand a needle exchange program started in Miami-Dade County to the rest of the state.
HB 171, which was filed last week by Reps. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, and Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, authorizes any eligible entity in the state to establish and operate a sterile needle and syringe exchange program. Previously, the Infectious Disease Elimination Act (IDEA) limited the exchange program to a pilot started by the University of Miami and its affiliates in 2016.

Eligible entities include hospitals, health care clinics, accredited medical schools, substance abuse treatment programs or HIV/AIDS service organizations. The bill would prohibit state funds from being used for any exchanges, though counties and municipalities could contribute money. Local governments could ban a needle exchange program from being located within their boundaries, according to the proposal.

A similar measure proposed in 2018 died in the House.

Led by UM assistant professor Dr. Hansel Tookes, Florida’s first needle exchange program hoped to curb HIV infections in drug users who share and reuse needles. Florida cities, particularly Miami and Orlando, led the nation in new HIV diagnoses in 2015. The pilot, which was prohibited from obtaining state and municipal funds, has been running solely on donations.

Advocates point to the IDEA exchange as one of the reasons overdose deaths decreased in Miami-Dade County in 2017, compared to significant increases in the rest of the state, particularly Broward and Palm Beach Counties.

Aside from swapping thousands of used needles for clean ones, the IDEA exchange has also distributed 2,000 doses of naloxone to opioid users and their close family and friends. Naloxone is a drug that reverses an opioid overdose, and IDEA exchange workers have documented over 1,000 overdose reversals, according to a press release from Jones’ office.

“Our country has suffered the loss of 70,237 people due to overdoses in 2017,” Jones said in a statement. “It is time to acknowledge this irreversible damage to our communities, rural and urban, rich and poor. Modern medicine has progressed exponentially through the years and has been readily available. We must rely on the scientific expertise of professionals to inform the decisions we make as legislators in order to benefit Floridians in desperate need of adequate healthcare options.”

Jones’ office noted that IDEA exchange physicians have additionally decreased HIV outbreaks by identifying and responding to new cases.

“Each HIV case prevented saves taxpayers more than the annual cost of the exchange program, representing significant economic as well as social benefits,” according to the news release.

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