A boost for needle exchanges

It’s sad that an epidemic of drug abuse and death is forcing a congressman from the hills of rural Kentucky to learn the science of opiate addiction. But we can all be grateful that U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers is rising to the challenge, and in the process, providing informed leadership to other Kentuckians in state and local government.

At Rogers’ behest, Congress quietly lifted the longstanding ban on federal funding of needle exchanges. Majority Leader and fellow Kentuckian Mitch McConnell shepherded the change through the Senate as part of the omnibus spending bill.

Congress acted at the end of a year in which Kentucky’s legislature passed a law to combat the rapid increase in heroin use, including authorizing the creation of needle exchanges. Health departments in Lexington, Louisville and Northern Kentucky are operating the state’s first three exchanges.

In a statement, Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said: “While I still oppose the use of federal funds to subsidize illicit drug use, I also believe many organizations administering syringe-exchange programs at the state and local level are uniquely poised to provide much-needed intervention for those struggling with addiction.

“This epidemic requires an all-hands-on-deck approach, and we expect these federal resources to be used to provide desperately needed wrap-around services, like counseling, education and treatment. These federal funds will allow communities that have been hardest hit by the epidemic or are at risk for a spike in cases of HIV and hepatitis C to get additional resources for this purpose.”

Exchanges help stem the spread of blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users and those with whom they have sex by providing clean needles. They also steer people into recovery, rehab and needed medical care.

Hepatitis C, which can be spread by people sharing needles, has been increasing in Kentucky at seven times the national rate and is extremely costly to treat. HIV can also be spread via shared needles, while inappropriately discarded needles create a public health hazard.

The funding ban was enacted in 1988 because of an unfounded belief that needle exchanges encourage drug use. Congress is still banning federal funds for needle purchases. But the syringes are the cheapest part of the programs.

We hope the availability of federal funds to pay for staff, space and vans will help this valuable outreach spread from urban areas into the small towns where Kentuckians are becoming infected with hepatitis and dying from overdoses in numbers far greater than the national rate.