News on needle exchange in Washington, DC

From Kaiser Daily: The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government on Tuesday will consider a Washington, D.C., appropriations bill that includes language preventing the city from financing needle-exchange programs, the Washington Post reports. According to the Post, some health advocates are hopeful that the language will be removed from the bill because of the “changed balance of power on Capitol Hill” (Levine, Washington Post, 6/5). The ban was first imposed under a federal law signed by former President Clinton in 1998 that prohibits the district government from using local tax money to fund any organization that operates a needle-exchange program (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/29). According to the Post, the House has added the ban each year to the district’s appropriations bill (Washington Post, 6/5).

Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), chair of the subcommittee, recently said he will make it a priority to push for the removal of the language. District Mayor Adrian Fenty has said that he will provide funds for needle-exchange programs as soon as Congress removes the language.

Injection drug use is the second most common mode of HIV transmission among men in the district and the most common mode among women in the city. Prevention Works!, the district’s only needle-exchange program, is financed through private donations and reaches about one-third of the estimated 9,700 injection drug users in the city (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/29). Walter Smith, executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said that there is a connection between the high number of HIV/AIDS cases in the district and lack of a city-funded needle-exchange program, adding that it’s “time to uncouple” the connection.

Serrano said that although it is unclear whether the ban will be lifted, he is ready to push the issue. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called the ban “abuse of the city,” adding that “countless deaths have occurred” because the city lacks a government-funded needle-exchange program. More than two dozen medical, public health, social service and philanthropic organizations last month sent a letter to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), chair of the subcommittee that initially handles the district’s budget, urging that the restriction be lifted, the Post reports. Chuck Knapp — a spokesperson for Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), the original author of the ban — said that Tiahrt likely will try to continue the ban but added that “it’s a different political environment” than when it originally passed (Washington Post, 6/5).


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