Advocates call for statewide support for needle exchange programs in Pa.

Written by on June 7, 2022

Advocates call for statewide support for needle exchange programs in Pa.

By Kiley Koscinski / WESA
June 7, 2022

Leaders from western Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Health Department are calling on the state to do more to support needle exchange programs to help combat the opioid crisis.

“These programs save lives in our city and should be expanded across our commonwealth,” said Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey. “We cannot do it alone. We need our leaders in Harrisburg to do more to end this overdose crisis.”

Gainey was joined last week by acting Pennsylvania Health Secretary and Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson, Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen, and others calling for state lawmakers to do more to support exchanges.

Public health experts have long pointed to needle exchanges as part of an alternative strategy to ineffective zero-tolerance policies targeting the opioid epidemic. Individuals who use needle exchanges are less likely to contract HIV and Hepatitis C and are five times more likely to enter treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pittsburgh is expanding its program with the use of American Rescue Plan dollars.

Harm reduction programs are gaining support nationwide, with President Biden setting aside $30 million last year for programs that include needle exchanges. But Pennsylvania is one of 10 states where they are illegal.

Currently, needle exchanges only operate legally in Allegheny County and Philadelphia. Both areas have their own municipal public health authorities that permit such exchanges. But counties elsewhere in Pennsylvania receive public health services from the state, which does not have the authority to permit syringe services.

“We at the Department of Health strongly support syringe services,” Johnson said. “Many communities that could really benefit from these services are not able to do it because of regulation.”

The law also prevents federal dollars from funding needle exchanges in Pennsylvania, which hinders existing exchanges, according to Johnson. “It would be great if they could expand it, but they’re really constrained because they don’t have the resources to do it,” she said.

A bill under consideration in the state House and a similar one in the state Senate’s judiciary committee would change Pennsylvania law to allow statewide syringe services programs. It’s unclear when either bill could be voted on. But leaders expressed a sense of urgency Thursday.

“We need them to become law so that we can get the resources that are necessary to help out in this disastrous situation,” said Gainey. “Together, we can heal our community, but it’s going to take us all.”

Before he was elected mayor of Pittsburgh, Gainey supported the effort to legalize needle exchanges across Pennsylvania as a state representative. He invited Pittsburgh organizations interested in launching needle exchanges to reach out to the city.

“We are committed to help health systems and other organizations across our city to navigate the process to be able to expand this program,” said Gainey. “If we are going to be successful in our work to make our city safe for everyone, then we need to be the leaders in this work to combat overdose crisis everywhere.”

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