Madison County cuts off needle exchange funds

ANDERSON, Ind. (WISH) — The Madison County Council voted Tuesday night to cut off funding to the local needle exchange program.

The program started in August 2015 with the goal of slowing the spread of HIV and hepatitis C from drug users sharing needles.

County health workers said, at least for now, Tuesday’s vote ends the county needle exchange. Hundreds of people have participated in the program.

“I’m emotional. I’m sad and then I’m angry,” Madison County Public Health Coordinator Stephanie Grimes said. “I’m sad for our participants.”

Grimes will keep her job but, after Tuesday’s 5-2 vote, that job can no longer include overseeing the needle exchange, Grimes said.

“It might not be tomorrow or next month, but in a year or two, if the program doesn’t continue, I hate to think about what it’s going to look like,” Grimes said.

Councilman Fred Reese said he voted to cut the funding after talking to dozens of locals who oppose the program. He said one reason council members are concerned is because statistics show exchange users aren’t returning all of the needles.

The health department distributed about 229,000 needles from 2015 to 2017 and, according to Grimes, 53 percent were returned. She said the percentage of returned needles has increased since the program’s start.

Reese said he’s never spotted a needle on the ground in Madison County but some of his constituents have.

“I had a young lady who was a grandmother who contacted me,” Reese said. “She found a needle in her yard, then probably a couple weeks later, her neighbor found a needle in her yard.”

He added that the vote was “a very difficult decision.”

Health workers offer treatment and health care to needle exchange users and some participants have accepted those offers.

“Those people who are often seen or have been referred to irresponsible … they’re not. Not all of them” Grimes said.

She said the county has not recorded any new HIV cases since the program started. She said hepatitis C cases have increased because of an increase in testing through the program.

Grimes said there are thousands of used needles sitting in her office. She said she’d usually use needle exchange funds to pay a company to safely incinerate the needles but she’s unsure what to do after Tuesday’s vote.

She said she is hoping a nonprofit can step in and take over the needle exchange.

Reese said if a nonprofit does step in, the council would likely want to give a directive to make sure the program is as safe as possible.

He said he’d likely support an additional measure allowing the county to safely dispose of the leftover used needles currently in the county health offices.

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