Needle Point

This morning down in Austin, the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services is set to hear public testimony on Senate Bill 308 -- which, for those not keeping score at home, is the legislation proposed by Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) that would legalize needle-exchange programs in Texas. (Deuell, himself a practicing doc with a family practice, proposed the bill in January; here's his original press release announcing the needle-exchange bill.) Thus far, the bill's received a decent amount of bipartisan support; among its supporters are legislators normally at odds with the conservative Deuell, among them co-author Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) and Dallas' own Royce West.

Deuell also has support in the right-leaning blogosphere, where, in January, Lone Star Times said supporting the bill would be the Christian thing to do. Glory be. And I see our very pro-SB308 Friend Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast this morning has posted yet another item supporting the legislation, which means, according to a pro-SB308 press release we got this morning from the ACLU of Texas, the left, right and dead center all think Deuell's bill is a swell idea -- and one that is so way past time it might as well be 1994, as Texas remains the only state left that doesn't allow needle-exchange programs for drug addicts. Didn't know that? Then you probably haven't read William Martin's piece in the latest Texas Monthly, in which the senior fellow in religion and public policy at Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy calls for a needle-exchange program. In fact, Martin cites the success of former Dallas County doc Martin Krepcho's Dallas Area Needle-Syringe Exchange (DANSE) program as proof that needle-exchange programs work and then some.

Then again, there was similar legislation before the state Senate two years back -- again, proposed by a conservative legislator, Sen. Jon Lindsay of Houston -- and it never even got to a vote. And why did it fail then when folks think it might succeed now? Lindsay tells Martin that many socially conservative legislators "are afraid of their shadow. They're afraid they'll be branded as catering to druggies and don't want that to be a potential campaign issue. That's the bottom line that is causing the hang-up. A large number of them don't understand the issue. It's more of a knee-jerk reaction." Discussion gets underway in Austin shortly; watch it here, because it'll be riveting, no doubt. And the ACLU of Texas release is below. --Robert Wilonsky

From the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas:

Needle Exchange Bill Looking Sharp this Year SB 308 to be heard Thursday in Senate HHS Committee

AUSTIN, TX — Disease prevention experts may soon have a new tool at their disposal in the fight against HIV and hepatitis C in Texas. This Thursday, at 10am or upon adjournment in room E1.016, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will hear testimony regarding Senate Bill 308, authored by Sen. Bob Deuell (R-Greenville). The bill removes the restrictions that prohibit health care professionals from providing syringe exchange services to high risk populations.

"Syringe exchange programs ensure that injection drug users who cannot or will not stop injecting drugs have access to sterile syringes, and they provide a means to safely dispose of used syringes," said Janet Realini, MD, MPH, a public health physician from San Antonio who will testify in support of the bill for the Texas Medical Association.

Senator Deuell, a practicing family physician, filed the bill because the programs will save lives, save money and could actually help get drug abusers into rehabilitation and treatment. "The cost of treating a single HIV case runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars making these programs a cost-effective public health effort while also connecting drug users to treatment," said Deuell.

"This might be the only time we can reach addicts and give them the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves," said Deuell. "One study showed more than 1,000 drug users found their way into treatment through a needle exchange program."

Tracey Hayes of the ACLU's Access Project said, "Prevention of disease and preservation of life have to play a role in how we deal with addiction in this state. It just doesn't make sense to prohibit or punish health care workers who want to provide the life saving opportunity that needle exchange programs offer." Hayes added, "Needle exchange gives addicts the choice to live, and a way to take a first responsible step for themselves and their loved ones. Without needle exchange, addicts who are not ready to quit will pick up syringes from the street, share with others who may carry infection, or feed the black market. That's no good for anyone."

In most states, sterile syringe access is a standard practice. Many states, including New York and Connecticut, run needle exchange programs through state health departments. After the passage of similar legislation last year in Delaware and New Jersey, Texas stands virtually alone in its reluctance to adopt the HIV prevention measure recommended by every major medical agency in the country, including the National Institute of Health, the American Medical Association and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Many syringe exchange programs provide a range of preventive health services to help injection drug users reduce their risks of acquiring and transmitting blood borne diseases, tuberculosis, and other contagious diseases," said Realini. "Studies show that syringe exchange programs do not encourage drug abuse and that injection drug users will use sterile syringes if they are able to obtain them."

Groups in support include Texas Medical Association, Texas Liver Foundation, Texas Pediatric Society, and many more.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky