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Medical students hope Miami needle-exchange pilot program finally passes

A bill sponsored by state Plantation Democratic Rep. Katie Edwards to set up a pilot needle-exchange program in Miami-Dade County is headed to the House floor for a full vote.

The House Health & Human Services Committee approved the bill (HB 81) this week. The proposal would allow the University of Miami to establish a privately funded program aimed at preventing the spread of diseases by intravenous drug users.

The five-year pilot program would allow drug users to exchange used needles and syringes for clean ones. It’s been before the Legislature for several years, but this time it might actually happen.

That’s what John Dudley and Chanelle Diaz hope.

They’re medical students who have been advocating the legislation for years. Dudley attends the Florida State College of Medicine, and Diaz is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“Both of us have actually been working on this issue for about three years now,” Diaz said Wednesday. “We’re about to graduate from a four-year medical program.”

“I think that this is the earliest we’ve got this far,” said Dudley. “Passing Health & Human Services unanimously today, it’s great moving forward. So hopefully we can get a vote in the chambers and be done with this and help some patients.”

“Personally, I’ve seen the affects of this,” Diaz said.”In the hospital, on the wards with patients, I really do think this is a public health emergency. Indiana moved to implementing an emergency need exchange (program) after just 153 cases, but between 2013 when the bill was first introduced and 2014,  there had been 858 in Florida related to injected drug use. So we really do believe at this point, we can’t afford to wait any longer before acting on this issue.”

Last year a cost analysis of study hospitalizations for bacterial infections at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami put the bill at $11.4 million over a 12-month period. It also showed that 92 percent of those costs fell on taxpayers, either through Medicare, Medicaid or the uninsured pool.

“This is definitely something that should be done statewide,” Dudley said of the pilot’s initial focus only on Miami-Dade. “Having it just work in Miami, and just looking at the data at a local municipality, it will be helpful to be done statewide.”

Miami-Dade County has the highest rate of HIV infection in the nation. Broward County is second. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined last year that heroin use has increased significantly across all demographics.

Also making the drive from South Florida on Wednesday was Joy Fishman, who testified in support of HB 81. Fishman says that when her son died a decade ago, she felt alone in her fight for methods to attempt to fix the problem.

Now, though, the expansion of heroin use and deaths by opioids in the Northeast brought the problem to the fore as a major issue during the recent New Hampshire primaries.

“It’s taking on a different flavor,” Fishman said of the newfound concern. “It’s reaching out to what we would call a whole different caliber of people who didn’t see this coming in this direction. We’ve got to start recognizing it as a disease and start offering help to people.”

Senate Bill 242, the companion bill to Edwards’ legislation, is being carried in the upper chamber by Miami Democrat Oscar Braynon. 

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at

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