Syringe exchanges a point of debate

An example of a syringe handed out as part of the Madison County Health Department’s needle exchange program.

ANDERSON — With only one resident voicing opposition in the public hearing, the Madison County commissioners approved the renewal of the syringe exchange program Tuesday in a 2-1 vote.

Commissioner Kelly Gaskill cast the no vote, stating she had a niece who overdosed last December and another family member who died from a drug overdose.

Commissioners John Richwine and Darlene Likens cast the affirmative votes to approve the program for two years.

Lisa Pay, a professor at Anderson University, said she was a strong supporter of the program that is operated by Aspire Health Indiana, calling it a bright light for Madison County.

“It improves health for those dealing with substance abuse and homelessness,” Pay said. “There is an ethical responsibility to care for the most vulnerable.”

Jeremy Turner, representing the Indiana State Department of Health, said the state agency supports all the counties that currently have syringe exchange programs in place.

Turner said the programs help Indiana reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

“We recognize the importance of syringe programs,” he said. “We have been working for 18 months to eliminate the spread of HIV in Indiana in 10 years. The syringe exchange programs are an important part of the program.”

Julie Foltz, director of infectious disease for Aspire Indiana Health, said when the program was stopped last June the support for people to work toward a healthy life went away.

She said the Aspire Health Indiana program will begin again on Wednesday.

Kevin Hunter, a police officer in Fort Wayne, said he sees the drug epidemic firsthand and the devastation it causes.

He said 2020 will be the worst year in the U.S. for drug overdose deaths because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“SEP (syringe exchange programs) are not always popular with law enforcement,” Hunter said. “But it is a tool to combat the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.”

He said Aspire Indiana Health runs an effective program.

“You’re helping people that need it the most,” Hunter said.

Mike Wallace, who heads up the Ryan White Project in Indiana, said the exchange programs are safe and effective.

“It doesn’t increase illegal drug use or crime,” he said. “People in the program are five times more likely to seek help. This was and will be an important program for Madison County.”

The Indiana General Assembly is considering legislation to extend the state authorization for the syringe exchange program through June 30, 2030.

The current state authorization expires on July 1 and could put an end to the program in nine counties.

The county’s syringe exchange program started in 2015 through the Madison County Health Department.

After the county council voted not to fund the program with local tax dollars, Aspire Health Indiana restarted the program in 2018 and it ceased operating last June.

Follow Ken de la Bastide on Twitter @KendelaBastide, or call 765-640-4863.

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Senior Reporter covering Anderson and Madison County government, politics and auto racing for The Herald Bulletin. Has been working as a journalist in central Indiana since 1977.