Indiana needle exchange kit

A syringe exchange program kit from the Madison County Health Department in Indiana is shown. The Madison County Council voted to end funding for the program.

ANDERSON – The Madison County Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to effectively end the needle exchange program by adopting an ordinance that prohibits funding for an employee to oversee the operation of the program.

The ordinance prohibits the use of county funds or donations and gifts to purchase the needles and the necessary supplies.

The council listened to almost two hours of comments for and against the needle exchange program. The program was started in 2015 after the Madison County commissioners declared a public health emergency over concerns about the potential spread of hepatitis C and HIV.

The council was being asked to approve a $15,000 appropriation which is used by the Madison County Health Department for supplies for the needle exchange program, other than the purchase of syringes. The money is being donated.

Councilman Anthony Emery, an Indiana State Police officer, said he can’t endorse a program that provides illegal paraphernalia to drug users.

“We didn’t have a needle exchange program, we had a needle giveaway program,” he said. “We’re not dealing with reasonable people. They only care about getting the next fix.”

Emery said no surrounding county has a needle exchange program and drug abusers are coming from other counties to get needles and staying in Madison County.

Councilman Clayton Whitson said the Madison County Board of Health showed good faith in reaching an agreement with Prosecutor Rodney Cummings to modify the program to provide more accountability over the distribution of the needles.

“This program was signed into law by then Gov. Mike Pence and supported by Gov. (Eric) Holcomb,” he said. “The commissioners declared a public health emergency.”

Whitson said there is a hepatitis C problem in the county and asked what the council is going to do to prevent the spread of the disease.

“Allow the Health Department under the modifications to continue to operate,” he said. “Provide time to see if they can make some real progress.”

Most of the people speaking in favor of the needle exchange program were in the local and regional medical community.

Dr. Stephen Wright, county health officer, said the program connects people to care.

“Are we going to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution,” he said. “The needle exchange program is part of the solution.

“The whole world is watching what happens in Madison County,” Wright said. “If you do turn down the program, the next person to contract hepatitis C or HIV will be on your shoulders.”

Shelly Sparks, a nurse at St. Vincent Anderson Hospital, said people in the program are seeking treatment.

“We need to get more people on the front lines,” she said. “This is the one opportunity you have.”

Rebecca Tanner said this is not the perfect program but is absolutely necessary.

“We look to the Health Department for guidance and to respond to an outbreak of hepatitis C,” she said. “As a mother of four, I’m concerned about syringes on the ground. If I see it on Facebook I’ll go pick it up. I want to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Kelly Jackson said her nephew almost died of an overdose using a needle he obtained through the exchange program.

“Why do we enable them by giving them the tools to do drugs?” she asked. “We can’t continue to enable them.”

Christie Lewis said the program is protecting people who made the choice to use drugs over the safety concerns for children.

“This is not a disease to begin with,” she said. “They made the choice the first time they decided to use drugs.”

​Follow Ken de la Bastide on Twitter @KendelaBastide, or call 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.