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Needle-Exchange Expansion in Limbo after Christie Veto

Supporters hope governor will change his mind, or that somehow money will be found to expand program statewide

heroin opioid

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie eliminated additional funding for the expansion of needle-exchange programs from the budget bill that Democratic legislators sent him last week. Nevertheless, advocates who support the programs hope the governor will still sign the measure into law after he returns from vacation later this week.

Last week lawmakers in both houses approved a measure that would enable communities across the state to launch programs to encourage intravenous drug users to swap dirty needles for sterile syringes, and give them access to health screenings and basic medical care, and – if and when they were willing -- a path to treatment.

New Jersey initiated a pilot program a decade ago that led to clean-needle exchanges in Paterson, Newark, Jersey City, Camden, and Atlantic City; Asbury Park is also authorized to operate a program, but has not done so. Nonprofit operators said these programs have each helped hundreds of patients each year and contributed to a decrease in the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C through needle sharing.

“Thanks to these programs thousands of people have been able to reduce their risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis C, thousands have gotten into drug treatment and thousands have gotten help with medical and social services,” explained Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director of the national Drug Policy Alliance.

Although Christie has been a loud supporter of efforts to curb the state’s epidemic of heroin and opiate addiction, he trimmed the $95,000 Democrats had tucked into their $34.8 billion budget proposal to fund needle exchange expansion while slashing $292 million in line items late Thursday night.

“This item is deleted in its entirety,” his veto message read under the funding line for the Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Program. Christie’s office declined to elaborate on the decision or comment on his plans for the legislation itself, as has been its policy on pending bills.

The governor included tens of millions of dollars in the budget that took effect on July 1 to raise reimbursement rates for doctors who treat addiction issues, expand treatment programs, and improve options for inmates, many of whom suffer drug dependencies. Democrats maintained these proposals in their version of the budget.

Advocates, who had urged the governor to support the proposal, said they would work with the lead Senate sponsor, Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), to identify other sources of funding. Vitale, who was frustrated by the governor’s veto, said he remains hopeful Christie will sign the measure.

It’s not clear where funding will be found, but advocates have said the $95,000 included in the budget was, in any case, not enough to cover the full cost of effective needle-exchange programs.

“This is a successful public health disease-prevention strategy and I’m grateful we moved this forward,” said Axel Torres Marrero, a leader at the Hyacinth AIDs Foundation, which operates the Jersey City program. Hyacinth spends close to $200,000 a year on its program. Marrero said additional funding will be needed if other communities are to start their own programs.

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