FRANKFORT (AP) — Delving back into the contentious issue of needle-exchange programs, the Kentucky Senate passed a bill Tuesday to require a straight one-for-one swap of dirty and clean needles among participating addicts.
The proposal is a follow-up to sweeping anti-heroin legislation passed by the General Assembly last year. That law includes a provision allowing local governments to set up needle-exchange initiatives.
So far, about a half-dozen Kentucky counties have set up programs, according to state health officials.
The programs — a response to the region’s struggles with heroin addiction — offer a place where addicts can swap used needles for clean ones. The goal is to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C and to steer drug users toward treatment.
The bill’s supporters said the language calling for one-for-one needle swaps reflects the intent of lawmakers when the anti-heroin bill passed in 2015. Republican Sen. Ralph Alvarado said one-for-one exchanges would result in more interactions between addicts and health officials.
“Every time they come in, it’s an opportunity for them to seek treatment, to get tested” for disease, said Alvarado, a doctor from Winchester.
Louisville was the first Kentucky community to start a needle-exchange program. During its earliest days, about seven clean syringes were distributed for every used needle collected.
However, the ratio has steadily declined as the program has settled in, and currently about 1.3 syringes are given out for every syringe returned, according to Louisville health officials.
The concern among Louisville public health officials is that the one-for-one exchange doesn’t reflect the reality that some needle users share needles with others.
“A one-to-one syringe exchange implies that no needle sharing is occurring — we know that is not the case,” Dr. Sarah Moyer, the city’s interim public health and wellness director, said in a statement.
“Our goals are to prevent the spread of HIV and hepatitis C in our community and to stop intravenous drug users from sharing and reusing needles,” she added. “The program is working.”
Senators added language for the one-for-one needle exchanges to a House-passed bill.
The amended version passed the Senate on a 28-10 vote and now returns to the House, which will decide whether to accept the Senate’s changes. The original House bill, still part of the measure, would require state health officials to establish guidelines for proper disposal of hypodermic needles.
Some senators voted against the bill because of their steadfast opposition to any form of government-sanctioned needle exchanges. Republican Sen. John Schickel said many Kentuckians oppose providing needles to enable people “to put something into their bloodstream that will end up killing them.”
Schickel is from northern Kentucky, which has been hard hit by heroin addiction.
Other senators opposed putting the one-for-one exchange restrictions on local health officials.
The legislation is House Bill 160.