ANDERSON – The syringe exchange program has made some changes following a vote by the Board of Health at the June meeting.
The biggest change was immediate – the removal of the cooker, a small, metal bowl that is used for cooking drugs. The item was included in the harm reduction kit offered to program participants with the syringes they exchange.
The harm reduction kit appears to be the root of contention for the community leaders and citizens. The Madison County Council is expected to present a resolution at the Tuesday meeting that wouldn’t allow the health department to spend any money on the program.
The exchange program is funded only by private donations, including a large grant from Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis. It is never funded by taxpayer dollars.
Stephenie Grimes, who runs the program for the health department, said syringes, which cost about 15 cents each, themselves rather than monetary funds would be the only way to accept supplies for the program. She said politics appear to be playing into this health department program more than what she’s seen in her public health career.
“I’ve enjoyed that luxury for 21 years that regardless of the politics, we do what we do because it’s for the betterment of our public health system,” she said. “This whole thing that has become political is very interesting.”
Set hours and locations
Another issue voted on by the board was the hours in which syringes were distributed and exchanged. Grimes was meeting with people in public but unclassified location essentially by appointment.
The decision by the board to set hours and locations for exchanging needles was driven by two issues that have been raised, the first being Grimes’ safety while engaging with participants.
While Grimes would take another health department staff member with her to meet when it was convenient, Grimes would often meet at locations with participants by appointment often.
The health department will now have set walk-in hours at the Madison County Health Department in Anderson on Mondays and Wednesdays of 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Grimes will have mobile hours from 9 to 11 a.m.
“Mobile (means) we could be in Elwood, Anderson, Alex, wherever that is, just like we did before.”
Grimes said. “It’s just now those opportunities are fewer.”
For the mobile hours, Grimes will now be accompanied by Rebecca Sanders of the health department, who has been working on the program with her already.
Another driving factor into why the board voted to set hours and locations for the exchange is so law enforcement officers and the prosecutor’s office will have a better idea of when a suspect is actually on his or her way to exchange syringes through the health department.
When a participant in the program is caught by having syringes and paraphernalia by law enforcement, it is at the officer’s discretion whether or not to press charges. Because the program is confidential, participants carry cards about the program, but the cards do not state that they are a participant.
Informing law enforcement of the set hours will essentially clear up whether someone driving with clean syringes, a sharps container with syringes or paraphernalia in their vehicle is telling the truth when they say they are on their way to meet with the health department.
Knowing how to issue a card to help authenticate a participant’s involvement in the program when facing law enforcement is an issue other counties with syringe exchange program have come across.
Law enforcement across the state have requested a way to identify the people who are actually in the program instead of just using a card without their identity listed as proof. In Clark County, the health department puts an identification number of sorts on the card to authenticate it, but the number cannot actually be used to identify the participant.
Amelia Johns, public health nurse of Clark County, said in the beginning of their program, they tried to put the participant’s date of birth and ZIP code on the card to help law enforcement identify them. Once the state found out, the county had to begin generating random identification numbers because the state said it is crucial to keep the participants completely confidential, since that is how the program is laid out.
The county might soon need to find a new way to distribute cards because embossing each plastic card has become expensive and time consuming, especially because participants have reported having the cards taken by law enforcement or losing the cards, Johns said.
The set hours and locations are an effort to work with local law enforcement on the issue. Currently, Grimes and Sanders simply sign the cards participants carry in hopes it will authenticate their participation.
If You Go
What: Madison County Council to discuss needle exchange program
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Council chambers, Madison County Government Center, 16 E. Ninth St.