PRINCETON — The Mercer County Health Department has ended its needle exchange program.
During Wednesday’s board of health meeting, the board voted to discontinue the program, citing new state regulations that are to so strict compliance is not possible.
“Under the new law, we can’t comply,” Health Department Administrator Roger Topping told board members after presenting them with a list of almost 50 requirements to be approved for a license for a harm reduction program that includes the needle exchange.
The department started offering a “one for one” needle exchange, providing a clean needle to addicts in order to prevent the spread of diseases like Hepatitis C and HIV, in September 2019. In October 2020, Southern Highlands Mental Health Center came on board to provide counseling to those who ask for it.
But during the legislative session earlier this year, a bill was passed to tighten regulations of the program, against the advice of healthcare professionals.
“The West Virginia Legislature passed a new bill in the past legislative session that will cripple some needle exchange programs and many needle exchange programs will cease to exist,” Topping said at that time. “With Mercer County being listed by the CDC as a potential outbreak county for HIV and with other counties experiencing outbreaks of HIV now, why would legislators pass a bill that surely will allow for the increase in HIV cases statewide? What are they thinking?”
Senate Bill 334 includes a myriad of “harm reduction” rules, including providing license application requirements and process; establishing program requirements; providing procedure for revocation or limitation of the syringe services programs and requiring a syringe services program to coordinate with health care providers.
Not only that, Topping said Wednesday, the new rules will keep those who need the program away.
“If you look at all of these things you have to provide,” including tracking each needle with a serial number and addicts required to sign in, they will stop coming,” Topping said of addicts who take advantage of the program to avoid the spread of HIV and Hep C.
“Southern Highlands cannot take on this problem by themselves,” Topping said of the new requirements. “The way they are structured, they are not allowed to do that.”
“We are apparently going to have to discontinue this program all together,” said Board Chair Dr. Randy Maxwell, who added that the program has already stopped.
Because of another law that passed this year, the board must go through a process with changes they make to offer a public forum on the issue and then send it to the County Commission for approval.
Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett, who attended the board of health meeting, called the legislation a “travesty,” especially considering the HIV rates in the county are “horrible.”
Topping said “very few health departments” in the state will be able to meet those requirements and most of those are in the bigger cities.
Puckett said that even then it is a “manpower issue.”
“I think that needs to be addressed and I think all health departments in the state need to go back to the legislature and tell them that they are killing people,” he said, and the spread of HIV will be “epidemic status, if not already, in a matter of a year.”
— Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org