Syringe exchange program dead for now after being tabled without future date

News

Parish Council Chairman Shane Mack (District 9)
McHugh David | The News

LIVINGSTON, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – Only health officials spoke in favor of the program Thursday night.

Most others spoke with concern.

“I don’t want to be a leader on this kind of program,” said Garry ‘Frog’ Talbert, councilman of district 2 after learning that only East Baton Rouge, Orleans, Bossier (Shreveport), and Rapides (Alexandria) had the program.

And local data from those outside programs was only available from 2017. According to state health officials, they didn’t have the data handy either – they would have to request it.

All parish council members were concerned about the program’s purpose of drawing drug users from other, nearby parishes as well to turn in their needles for new one. There was some hesitance, as well, when the health official was asked about whether or not addresses would be tracked.

She wasn’t sure, she said, but some of these people don’t have addresses, she added.

Talbert was also concerned about the placement of the program, and asked the health officials where the private company could set it up.

“Could they set it up in my district if they want?” Talbert asked.

“Yes,” the health official said.

That was not the answer Talbert wanted to hear.

Dee Dra Sellers, a resident a District 6, testified that her mother died of opioids in 2015 and was against the ordinance. She expressed concern over the following:

  • No address tracking
  • Data from other districts not readily available
  • No complete assurance that needles must be on hand for exchange

Near the end of the public hearing, Parish Councilman Jeff Ard (District 1) said that he was not only concerned of drawing in drug users, but he felt like the process was rushed and without appropriate data to make a sound decision.

“I’ve talked to my brother (Sheriff Jason Ard) more over the past two days about this program than I have all year,” Jeff Ard said, “and he is vehemently against (this program).”

That statement ended the public hearing, with Talbert making the motion to close the public hearing and table the item without a future date.

“Let the next council handle it,” councilman Maurice ‘Scooter’ Keen said with a laugh.

THE INTRODUCTION

After an introduction by the Department of Health and Hospitals in October, Parish Council Chairman Shane Mack (District 9) took the plunge.

During an early November meeting, due to Thanksgiving, Mack strove forward with introducing a specific ordinance that would implement a ‘Syringe Exchange Program’ in Livingston Parish. According to several parish councilmen, they believe the program has some complexities that make it hard to understand.

The vote on the ordinance would establish an amendment to the ‘Offenses’ section of the parish’s code of ordinances. It would establish that anyone seeking to exchange a needle could do so, without fear of repercussion by law enforcement, so that program administrators can discuss the benefits of giving up drugs.

According to studies of the program, it has had a positive effect on reducing the transfer of blood borne diseases in the areas where it is established. Current rates of HIV and Hepatitis transfer are the highest in Louisiana, and moving into a new generation with cases popping up in the 25-34 demographic.

However, the biggest stress that the council who are in favor of the program want to express is that the program is mostly grant funded, and comes at no cost to the parish.

The ordinance also outlines that the parish holds no responsibility for any part of the program, legally or otherwise.

Other councilmen believe the program is unfair to those who have to use needles, and cannot exchange them because they aren’t illegal drug users, and it hampers law enforcement.

They also believe that drug users will simply come in, listen to the ‘diatribe,’ and leave.

“These doctors that are administering the program, they’re getting their money somehow,” said councilman Garry ‘Frog’ Talbert, District 2. “So someone is making money on this.”

The federal grant program that funds the syringe program does not provide revenue for the new needles in the program, only the collection and disposal, as well as administrative costs. Funding the new needles would have to come from an outside source, DHH explained.

A “Syringe Services Program” is any evidence-based program run by a governmental or non-governmental organization or individual that includes in its mission or function the storage or distribution of hypodermic needles, syringes, or other drug related supplies for a legitimate public health purpose of preventing the spread of bloodborne, infectious diseases.

That would open the door for a private company to partner with the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals to provide a ‘syringe exchange program.’ The federal government will fund such a venture with grant money, with the exception of the new syringe which must be funded by other means.

Parish Council Chairman Shane Mack said that he was not for the program until he discovered that other means meant potential grants from non-profit organizations, or the state. After that, it was made clear to him that the parish would owe no money for the program – the ordinance was “simply allowing it to exist.”

Mack also brought up the high rate of HIV and Hepatitis A in Livingston Parish. Both diseases are most often transferred by needle sharing, and Livingston is currently near the top of Louisiana when ranking cases of each.

Mack also continued to repeat that the program would come at no cost to the parish.

District 4 Councilman R.C. ‘Bubba’ Harris agreed. Harris said that the program goes farther than getting dirty needles off the street. Before the Department of Health and Hospitals came to the council in October to discuss the program, they held a seminar to explain the benefits – which Harris attended.

“Y’all all made me go by myself,” Harris quipped, “but it was actually very informative.”

Harris said that the program opens discussions with those who are on drugs about how to get off of them – offering means to counseling, rehabilitation, and work if necessary to help open the door to clean life.

A representative from the Department of Health and Hospitals confirmed that statement.

The parish ranks fourth in the state in opioid deaths at an average of 46 per year — a number that is 125 percent under reported, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHH).

In 2017, the number of opioid-related fatalities reached 55. 

Cases of HIV and HCV in the parish have increased, as well, since 2009 by nearly 200 percent. This is also spread across a wider range of age groups, with many more cases in younger citizens, according to DHH.

All of this can be tracked back to needle usage increasing in popularity to inject drugs, DHH said.

According to the description written by DHH, the objectives of such programs shall include the following:

  • Reduce the spread of HIV, AIDs, viral hepatitis, and other blood-borne diseases in the parish
  • Reduce needle stick injuries to law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel

Programs established pursuant to this section may offer all of the following:

  • Disposal of used needles and hypodermic syringes
  • Needles, hypodermic syringes, and other drug use supplies in quantities sufficient to ensure that needles, hypodermic syringes, and other drug use supplies are not shared or reused

Educational materials on the following:

  • Overdose prevention
  • The prevention of HIV, AIDS, and viral hepatitis transmission
  • Drug abuse prevention
  • Treatment for mental illness, including treatment referrals
  • Treatment for substance abuse, including referrals for medication assisted treatment
  • Access to naloxone kits that contain naloxone hydrochloride that is approved by the FDA for the treatment of a drug overdose

Supplies and material distributed by a program pursuant to this section shall be distributed at no cost to participants.

Persons acting as employees or volunteers of an organization, including a nonprofit, community based organization or local health department, that provides needle and syringe exchange services to prevent and reduce the transmission of communicable diseases, or participants in such a program as defined in this section shall be guilty of distributing and/or possession hypodermic needles and syringes.

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