City to introduce needle-exchange program to combat heroin, infectious diseases
By Misti Crane
The Columbus Dispatch • Wednesday November 11, 2015 2:02 PM
Combating heroin’s ability to diminish and destroy is a task both daunting and complex.
Mayor Michael B. Coleman and Columbus Health Commissioner Dr. Teresa Long are convinced they can help with clean needles, treatment, testing for HIV and hepatitis C and improved access to a naloxone, a drug that can rescue addicts from potentially fatal overdoses.
“There’s an epidemic in Ohio and it’s knocking on our front door in Columbus in a significant way,” said Coleman, who hopes a comprehensive heroin program, including a needle exchange, will become part of his legacy.
His budget proposal, to be released Thursday, calls for $280,000 dedicated to efforts led by AIDS Resource Center Ohio in the Short North.
The program, called Safe Point, likely will begin at least one morning a week in January, said Peggy Anderson, the center’s chief operating officer.
“Being in the HIV arena for 30 years, we’ve been used to dealing with the stigma and shame of dealing with HIV,” Anderson said. “We think there’s a similar stigma and shame that goes along with injection drug use.”
The hope is that the program will serve about 750 central Ohio addicts a year, Long said.
Aside from clean needles, services will include an assessment of the drug user and easy access to treatment and counseling. Some communities have seen about one-third of needle-exchange participants move into treatment, Coleman said.
Heroin deaths accounted for 1,177 unintentional overdose deaths in Ohio last year, according to the state Health Department. That was up from 983 in 2013.
“This is really opening the door to recovery,” Long said.
Exchanges also lower the risk that users will contract diseases that could sicken or kill them, including hepatitis C.
Rates of new hepatitis C infection have nearly doubled in the past five years in Franklin County, from 719 diagnoses to 1,369 in 2014.
And in other places in the nation, HIV rates linked to dirty needles have surged.
Getting an addict into treatment can take time and in the meantime, offering them clean needles makes good sense, Long said.
Coleman stressed that the goal is to develop a safe and respectful place for addicts and their families.
“This isn’t a give-away. This is a treatment effort with hands-on analysis and assessment of their situation,” he said. “We have to build trust between them and us so they keep coming back and we will transition them into substantial treatment.
“Unless we intervene, what we will see is more deaths, more spread of hep C, more HIV.”
The work will include cooperating with others in the community who are focused on helping addicts get clean, including the Franklin County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board, which is looking to expand efforts to treat heroin users with safe, effective detoxification medications, Long said.
Operators of needle-exchange programs in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton and Portsmouth helped Columbus leaders develop their plan, which they believe will be the most comprehensive in the state, Long said.
Heidi Riggs, whose 20-year-old daughter Marin died of a heroin overdose in 2012, said the Columbus effort will help save lives and give family members better resources to help addicted loved ones.
Long consulted with Riggs on plans for Safe Point.
“We have too many people who are suffering and not enough treatment,” said Riggs, who lives in Upper Arlington and has become an advocate for prevention and treatment of heroin addiction.
Riggs said she’s hopeful that the program becomes a place of support and education for families as well as a stop for clean needles and ideally treatment for addicts.
The program is a small part of Coleman’s roughly $834 million operating budget proposal for 2016.
The mayor plans to announce details Thursday at City Hall. The proposed budget represents a 2.6 increase over this year’s $813 million budget, which Coleman dubbed a continuation budget.
He wouldn’t give the exact figure of his proposal today.
City Auditor Hugh J. Dorrian sent Coleman his final revenue estimate of $834.8 million available for the city’s general fund earlier this month. Roughly two-thirds of the budget is funded by income tax revenue.
Coleman said he didn’t anticipate earlier in his time as mayor that a heroin program would be the signature program in his final budget proposal.
“We have a problem and it’s only going to get worse. And so I came to the conclusion based on empirical data, the experience of other cities.
“This is the right thing to do for our city and it will save lives.”
Reporter Lucas Sullivan contributed to this story.
Curious Observation: So how many heroin addicts are going to actually be cognitive enough to plan and go and take the time to exchange their needles? Seems if they are conscientious enough to be aware of using contaminated needles they will be cognitive in using clean needles. My point, both take some cognitive effort and conscientious planning.
This program has been going on for decades in various cities. I’m not saying it is a bad program, just that as usual we apply a band-aid to the problem in hopes that the heroin users feel the same way we do in doing the program mostly to prevent the spread of diseases and HIV; not that we are specifically concerned about the individual heroin users well being.