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Needle exchange program could expand in South Florida

An effort to expand a needle-exchange program statewide was scrapped Tuesday by a House health care committee, which agreed to extend the Miami-Dade County program to two additional Southeast Florida counties.

“In the spirit of baby steps, I encourage you to support this,” Rep. Cary Pigman, an Avon Park Republican, told members of the House Health & Human Services Committee.

The bill (HB 579) initially called for expanding statewide a pilot needle-exchange program run by the University of Miami in Miami Dade County. The initial version of the bill also would have changed current law to authorize any hospital, clinic, substance abuse program or medical school to operate a program where free, clean unused needles and hypodermic syringes could be swapped for used needles and hypodermic syringes. Backers of such exchange programs say they prevent the transmission of HIV, AIDS, viral hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases among intravenous drug users.

But the House committee tagged on an amendment that limited the expansion of the Miami-Dade program to Broward and Palm Beach counties. Additionally, the amendment limits operation of the program to the University of Miami.

The amendment would, though, extend the current pilot project for another two years, allowing it to operate until July 2023 instead of terminating in July 2021.

Several members of the committee expressed concerns that the bill was being limited to a three-county area. Rep. Ralph Massullo, a physician, called a needle exchange program an important tool.

“There’s no one answer to our drug problem,” Massullo, a Lecanto Republican, said. “But this is an important answer to a portion of it that, I think, will provide more families an opportunity to live drug free and be healthier.”

Committee member James Grant, a Tampa Republican, said he supports the idea of a needle exchange program but said he was voting against the bill because it no longer was a statewide program. Grant said he was concerned with a bill that treats counties differently under the state’s criminal drug laws.

“I can’t support something that would perpetuate greater discrepancies of the criminal code in the state of Florida based on geography,” said Grant, the only dissenter as the committee voted 17-1 to approve the bill.

But Pigman, a physician who is co-sponsoring the bill, said decriminalizing the possession of needles is not his top priority. Improving public health is, he said.

“I don’t live in a world of criminal justice. I don’t understand it. I live in a world of public health, and this is a real benefit toward reducing the transmission of hepatitis C and HIV,” he said. “Criminal justice be damned.”

The bill is now ready to go to the House floor. The Senate version (SB 800) is ready for Senate action. The Legislative Session ends March 9.

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