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Coalition for Syringe Access Press Release
Congressional Briefings Tout Benefits, Debunk Myths of Syringe Services Programs
Law Enforcement, Medical Provider, Academic, and Community Representatives Agree: Congressional Ban on Federal Support for Syringe Services Must End
WASHINGTON, D.C., Friday, October 30, 2015 – The Coalition for Syringe Access hosted two congressional briefings on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 highlighting the critical need for syringe services programs (SSPs) as part of a comprehensive response to the opioid and heroin addiction, HIV, hepatitis C, and overdose syndemic gripping the nation. Bringing together panelists representing affected communities and direct services, law enforcement, medical providers, and academia, the theme was resounding – SSPs save money, and SSPs save lives.
As communities across the U.S. grapple with substance use disorder and HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks related to injection drug use, the need for flexibility to support sustainable and broadly-accessible syringe services is increasing in new regions of the country. “It really is a door to health care,” said Dr. Alice Thornton, Chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Kentucky Medical School, and Medical Director of the Bluegrass Care Clinic. “This is a door that opens to trust.”
Christopher Abert, who founded the Indiana Recovery Alliance and found a path to recovery through SSPs, echoes this from his personal experience. “I was enveloped by a community of nonjudgmental people who met me where I was at. That might be the most important part of my recovery. There were 16 years between when I meant with all my heart to get clean until I was actually able to, and everyone was as confused as I was. The addiction had me in its grips and I continued to use without my will and without my intention.”
Prominent medical and public health entities in the U.S. and globally have long supported SSPs, but for local jurisdictions addressing drug use, the focus is often placed on criminal sanctions. Law enforcement has always been a vital partner for SSPs, and support has been increasing police departments. As Mr. Donnie Varnell, Special Agent In-Charge of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Diversion and Environmental Crimes Unit, puts it, “We decided to follow the compass of our hearts. What we decided was: anyone, anywhere, anytime. We were going to help that person first. It turns out that syringe programs don’t increase crime, they reduce it. The first tenant of all law enforcement officers is to protect the wellbeing of those they serve, and we think one way to do that is to support the SSPs.
Such support is critical, but even with broad support funding remains an issue. For example, in Indiana “there is a state ban on funding so our financial hands are tied,” said Abert. The Indiana Recovery Alliance received generous in-kind donations from a Chicago-based nonprofit in order to operate, but Abert acknowledges that the situation is not sustainable. Removing the congressional ban on using federal funding for SSPs would give states like Indiana the option to provide resources to such programs, making them more nimble to address outbreaks like the one in Scott County earlier this year.
A September 2015 study published in AIDS and Behavior led by Dr. Monica Ruiz, Assistant Professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, demonstrates the cost effectiveness of investing in SSPs by examining HIV cases averted when Congress removed the ban on the District of Columbia using its own municipal funds to scale up syringe services. Dr. Ruiz explained, “controlling for all other factors, including testing campaigns, the change in policy was associated with 120 averted HIV infections in the following two years. Even subtracting out the operating costs of programs, that represents a net benefit of $44 million.” Preliminary results demonstrate similar benefits in Baltimore, MD and Philadelphia, PA.
Allowing communities to utilize federal funds for public health to support syringe services programs is a critical component of the response addressing opioid and heroin addiction, HIV and hepatitis C, and overdose. “The role of environment in the context of addiction is so critical,” said Ruiz. “We need to change those environments for the families in the midst of this.”
About the Coalition for Syringe Access
The Coalition for Syringe Access is a national coalition promoting the implementation and expansion of syringe access programs to help reduce drug overdose; transmission of hepatitis C, HIV, and other diseases; and increase access to addiction recovery services. To learn more, visit www.coalitionforsyringeaccess.org.