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House, Senate Tangle On Needle Exchange Plans

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Momentum has built during the legislative session to allow counties to establish needle-exchange programs to help combat the spread of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. 

But the House and Senate don't agree on some prickly details, including whether counties should be allowed to use local tax dollars to help operate the programs.

The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to pass its version of the bill (SB 366), which would allow county commissions to decide whether to establish needle-exchange programs. It also would allow commissions to use local dollars to fund the programs.

The House version (HB 171) would authorize county commissions to approve the programs. But it would specifically ban counties from using local dollars for the operations.

Another difference between the House and Senate bills is a restriction on the number of needles that could be exchanged. A pilot program in Miami-Dade County allows the exchange of one clean needle for every used needle that is turned in, a limit that would be unchanged in the House bill. The Senate bill, however, would allow waivers that could offer counties more flexibility.

Senate bill sponsor Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday that he isn’t inclined to include the ban of local dollars to help fund the programs.

“I’m sending mine over (to the House), and they can decide what they’re going to do,” Braynon said.

The House bill initially would have allowed counties to use local funds on the needle exchange programs. But bill sponsor Shevrin Jones, D- West Park, agreed to delete the language. Both bills would ban state dollars from being used for the programs.

House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Wednesday he would not support legislation that would authorize the use of tax dollars to fund the programs.

"The minute you start injecting public dollars, they're going to go from using two portables, where they are doing something special in, and then they are going to start having buildings and they are going to have (a) board of directors and then they are going to have galas to raise money, and before you know it, it's a seven-foot fully glass building and the project costs $20 million,” he said.

Needle exchange programs are designed to help prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases by intravenous drug users.

Both the House and Senate measures would allow counties to contract with entities such as hospitals, health clinics or medical schools to operate the programs.

The Legislature in 2016 approved a law --- dubbed the Infectious Disease Elimination Act, or IDEA --- that allowed the Miami-Dade County pilot program, which is run through the University of Miami and its affiliates. The program relies on private funding.

The Miami-Dade program has taken 275,000 used syringes off the streets since its inception in December 2016.

Of the 1,000 people enrolled in the program, according to program officials, 85 percent reported using opioids, 42 percent tested positive for hepatitis C and 8 percent tested positive for HIV.

While a big part of the reason for the program was the reduction of HIV and AIDS cases, medical-student volunteers say it also has played a vital role in the state’s war on the opioid crisis and has helped reverse 1,100 opioid overdoses with the drug Narcan.