By Andi TenBarge
INDIANAPOLIS – Republican Gov. Mike Pence said he will sign a bill passed Wednesday by the General Assembly that lets local governments launch limited needle exchange programs – with approval from state officials.
Pence had initially opposed legislation that authorized widespread needle programs, even though he had created a temporary one in Scott County, where more than 140 cases of HIV have been reported among intravenous drug users.
But the governor and lawmakers have spent the last few weeks crafting something he could sign. And on Wednesday, after the vote, he called the bill a “timely and important public health initiative, which I believe will enable our state’s healthcare and law enforcement communities to address this and future health crises.”
The House passed a needle exchange bill last year but the legislation died in the Senate. This year, with the Scott County crisis looming, lawmakers were more eager to act.
“Unfortunately, we are having this discussion in response to a crisis – the crisis that’s occurring in Scott County,” Clere said. “I’m sorry that’s the reason for the discussion, but I am happy we are having this discussion.”
The bill would allow local communities with high rates of HIV and hepatitis C, an illness spread easily through dirty needles, to request permission from state officials to launch a program.
Clere said the bill would require a local health officer to make the case to the state that an epidemic is present a needle exchange will help. A local health officer will also have to find that intravenous drug use is the primary transmission from person to person.
“This legislation ensures that a community won’t have to wait for an HIV outbreak in order to do needle exchange,” Clere said. “They’ll be able to use hepatitis C as a basis for initiating that conversation.”
After the evidence is gathered, the public in the particular county will have an opportunity to weigh in on the issue. The local legislative body would then have to petition the state health commissioner to declare a public health emergency.
A needle exchange will only take place if the public health emergency is declared.
Andi TenBarge is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news site powered by Franklin College journalism students.