Pence extends Scott Co. needle exchange program

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence holds a news conference at the Statehouse in Indianapolis, Thursday, March 26, 2015. Pence has declared a public health emergency in response to the HIV epidemic in Scott County. Seventy two cases of HIV have been confirmed in the southern Indiana county. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has signed a 30-day extension of his executive order that will allow a needle exchange program to continue in Scott County, where the state’s worst HIV outbreak has shown no signs of slowing down.

Scott County has struggled with an HIV outbreak tied to intravenous drug use. Although needle exchange programs are illegal in Indiana, Pence renewed the executive order Monday because of the ongoing outbreak.

So far, more than 128 confirmed HIV cases have been identified along with six preliminary cases, according state health officials.

Governor Mike Pence offered no public comments Monday, nor did he take questions from reporters. Instead, news of that his executive order had been extended broke during a conference committee hearing debating a statewide needle exchange bill.

Joey Fox, the Indiana state health department’s legislative director, told the panel of lawmakers: “I can report to you this morning that the governor did sign an extension of the executive order for another 30 days.”

Fox also cautioned lawmakers to proceed carefully and thoughtfully when considering passage of a statewide needle exchange bill.

“At least one commercial sex worker who admits to having intercourse with over 70 truckers after she knew she was infected with HIV. This is new territory for us. We need to go slow, we need to be deliberate will addressing the crisis,” Fox said.

No vote was taken Monday for House Bill 461, which would authorize needles exchanges in counties deemed at high risk for hepatitis C and HIV.

While HIV is not specifically mentioned in the bill language, health officials argue hepatitis C is often a strong indicator of HIV infection and the needle for needle exchanges.

Dr. Beth Meyerson, with IU’s School of Public Health, is also the co-director for the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention.

Meyerson told the panel that “syringe exchange is evidence based. We’ve known this for 30 years. And it’s an evidence-based disease strategy, not a drug reduction strategy, though there are some nice outcomes there.”

Meyerson also walked lawmakers through various sets of data showing that 23 Indiana counties would fall into what’s known as the “fourth quartile”  – meaning counties showing high rates of hepatitis C.

Her presentation was intended to drive home the fact that HIV outbreak in Scott County is not an isolated incident. In other words, counties currently showing high rates of hepatitis C could seen by the next Scott County, Meyerson said.

“Hepatitis C is our most robust indicator because they represent real people with real disease,” Meyerson said.

Meyerson urged lawmakers that pass a needle exchange bill, saying that syringe exchanges, coupled with local control and increased access to treatment and testing would help to quell the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. She also tried to put to rest concerns that a statewide needle exchange bill would lead to increased drug use.

“We have zero evidence to that effect,” she said.

(REPORT CONTINUES BELOW DOCUMENTS)

Dr. Shane Avery, a Scottsburg physician, who has been on the front lines of the HIV outbreak in Scott County, described the despair that his patients endure when he has to inform them that they are HIV positive.

He also told the panel of lawmakers that he thinks the HIV outbreak has spread beyond the borders of Scott County, saying:

“We have public testimony of at least one commercial sex worker who admits to having intercourse with over 70 truckers after she knew she was infected with HIV.”

In urging lawmakers to pass the bill, Avery also admonished Gov. Pence for his handling of the situation. He said, “For the governor to think that he can contain this epidemic in Scott County with an emergency order is reckless and will cost the lives of thousands of Hoosiers.”

Rep. Ed Clere, R- New Albany, who authored HB 461, was asked if the advancing the bill would be moot, since Gov. Pence has indicated previously that he would veto any legislation that addresses a statewide needle exchange.

“Well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” Clere said. “I would hope the governor would recognize not only the crisis in Scott County, but also (the potential) for the crisis to happen elsewhere.”

Sen Patricia Miller, R – Indianapolis, hinted that she would like to see the bill include a sunset provision after two years and require a report from counties to drafted and sent to the Indiana General Assembly so that lawmakers could measure the efficacy of needle exchanges.

David Powell, with the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, spoke out against the measure, saying “passing out needles won’t fix it.”

Health officials said last week more confirmed cases of HIV had brought the total to nearly 130. All cases are linked to injection drug abuse.

The following statement from Pence was released Monday along with news of the executive order’s extension:

We have no higher priority than the health and safety of our citizens. Today, on the recommendations of the Indiana State Department of Health and in consultation with Scott County officials and the Centers for Disease Control, I used my authority as Governor to extend the public health emergency in Scott County for an additional thirty days. While we’ve made progress in identifying and treating those affected by this heartbreaking epidemic, the public health emergency continues and so must our efforts to fight it.

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