The West Virginia House Judiciary Committee passed a version of a bill to license syringe exchange programs that they hope will balance concerns on both sides of the debate after it was read for the first time Wednesday.
Health leaders have said Senate Bill 334, particularly as it left the Senate, would shutter syringe exchange programs in the state due to the restrictions it contains.
The House Judiciary Committee’s strike and insert amendment maintains the licensing program. Syringe exchanges would have to be part of a larger harm reduction program, and offer things like referrals to substance use disorder treatment, HIV testing and birth control.
Programs will not need to have support from a county commission or city council, law enforcement or the community. The public comment period before starting a new program was removed.
Programs will still need to operate toward an exchange rate goal of 1:1, and syringes must be “unique” to the syringe exchange program. A licensed health care professional must work with the program and offer services. An ID requirement has been removed, but syringes still can only be given to the individual — you can’t pick up syringes for a friend.
Programs will have to report data to the state annually.
An immunity provision added by the House health committee remains, providing protections to those operating syringe exchanges. The state may fine programs up to $10,000 for operating outside the law.
The committee accepted an amendment to prohibit state dollars from funding syringe exchanges, although existing programs do not bill Medicaid for syringe services since they are so inexpensive to fund.
“We just spent a good amount of time on amendment that has no real effect at all because we don’t even know how the programs work,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “We just want to make sure our tax dollars don’t pay for them and they’re not. Because of that, even though I appreciate the work done on this and the balance that’s been struck, I don’t want a vehicle back to the Senate.
“I think this would be better taken care of in the local communities and I don’t think the state should be dictating something like this because we have a whole bunch of people who feel strongly about something but they haven’t take the time to learn about it.”
The goal of harm reduction programs and syringe exchanges is to prevent the spread of disease through drug use. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends harm reduction and syringe exchanges operate with as little restriction as possible.
Part of that recommendation comes from researching the 2018 Cabell County outbreak of HIV, which was caused, in part, because of restrictions placed on the Cabell-Huntington Health Department syringe exchange. Those restrictions included a 1:1 exchange rate and requiring a Cabell County ID.
Dr. Michael Kilkenny, health officer of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said after the Senate passed the bill that the health department could not operate an exchange under the law because of the criminal penalties and tracking requirement, but mainly because it is a model proven not to work.
The bill will be on second reading Thursday. Bills on second reading have the right to be amended.