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2017 0507 needle

A sharps container used to dispose of syringes as part of a syringe exchange program is shown on May 3, 2017, at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has signed a bill that more than 300 health care professionals urged him to veto.

Justice signed Senate Bill 334, the Senate Clerk reported Thursday.

SB 334 establishes a licensing program within the state Department of Health and Human Resources for harm reduction programs operating syringe exchange programs.

All new and existing programs will need to apply to the Office for Health Facility Licensure and Certification. Programs will need support from the majority of the county commission and the majority of the governing body of a municipality.

For example, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department will need support from the Cabell County Commission and Huntington City Council.

Programs must offer a full array of harm reduction services, like referrals to treatment and HIV testing, and operate toward a goal of 1:1. A West Virginia I.D. will be required, and syringes must be “unique” to the program.

More than 300 health care professionals signed a letter urging Justice to veto the bill they say will eradicate syringe exchange programs in the state.

The letter was sent to the governor by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia on behalf of the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physician assistants, aides, psychologists, social workers, counselors, recovery coaches, advocates and researchers opposed to Senate Bill 334. The ACLU also sent a separate letter to the governor saying the bill is unconstitutional.

“West Virginia has been seen as a model nationwide for our rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine and our response to the pandemic,” the letter reads. “You wisely listened to public health professionals and the CDC when leading the state on these issues. This is no less a public health crisis. People in this state are dying from HIV and other bloodborne diseases transmitted by injection drug use. Many, many more will die if this cruel legislation is enacted into law.”

The bill goes against best practice recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are the least restrictive as possible. But when asked if he had concerns about the bill Monday, Justice said it was his understanding the bill was based on “good science” that found a balance.

“SB 334 does not strike a balance,” the letter reads. “This legislation will all but eradicate syringe service programs in West Virginia. Senate Bill 334 would require syringe service programs to operate in a manner in direct contravention of CDC guidance, guidance which is based on 30 years of peer-reviewed science. SB 334 is premised on fear and stigma. West Virginians need leadership grounded in compassion and science.”

Harm reduction operators in the state say the bill will make it nearly impossible to operate. The letter says that even if the programs find support from the local governments and find a way to operate, the restrictions like the I.D. requirement will still cost lives.

The ACLU also posits that the I.D. requirement is unconstitutional, citing a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found states cannot limit access to certain medical care to state residents. A state must prove that non-residents must be a particular “source of evil” for the statute.

Lawmakers cited incidents of non-residents being “bused in” or used for drug trafficking, but as the ACLU points out, there is no evidence to support those claims; therefore, they would not stand in court.

“As you may know, when former Vice President Pence was governor in Indiana, his anti-harm reduction policies led directly to an HIV outbreak that affected more than 230 people in a small, rural town of 4,000,” the letter reads. “He had to reverse course and issue an emergency order to provide for sterile syringe distribution. If this goes into law, you will no doubt be in the same position. Just as the CDC tells us that wearing a mask will protect both ourselves and our neighbors, it tells us that low-barrier, evidence-based harm reduction programs save lives. We know you believe in science and that you care for the health of every Mountaineer. Veto this bill.”

Dr. Michael Kilkenny, health officer of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said they will operate under the law, which is similar to the way the program operated in 2018.

“Unfortunately, we know the consequences of that is it contributes to the rise of HIV in our community,” he said. “We appreciate all the work our senators and delegates did to work out compromise, but this virus does not know any compromise.”

Kilkenny said he believes the department uses syringes unique to them, but the Office of Health Licensure and Facilities will determine what is “unique” under the law.

He said he also believes the Huntington program still has the necessary community support required under the law, but reiterated his biggest concern is operating under a model proven not to work in this community.

The bill is effective 90 days from passage.

Reporter Taylor Stuck can be reached at tstuck@hdmediallc.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

@TaylorStuckHD.

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