Struggle to Sustain Needle-Exchange Programs After Governor’s Veto

Lilo H. Stainton | August 18, 2016 | Health Care
An online campaign has been launched to help raise cash and awareness for programs that are scrambling to keep going

needle syringe opioid
Six weeks after Gov. Chris Christie put the kibosh on state funding for New Jersey’s needle-exchange programs, operators have found themselves scrambling to come up with enough cash to sustain the disease-prevention and anti-addiction efforts.

Program staff and supporters have been forced to seek emergency grants from foundations and accept donated clean needles and other supplies from exchanges operating in other states. At least one effort had to suspend operations temporarily and several have cut their hours. Earlier this month, several nonprofit organizations launched online campaigns to raise funds.

The Garden State initiated a pilot program a decade ago that permitted syringe access programs in a half-dozen communities that have had high numbers of intravenous drug users and above average rates of blood-borne diseases, like HIV, AIDS and hepatitis C. Atlantic City, Camden, Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson now have programs; Asbury Park is also an authorized site but has not implemented a program.

But no state funding was provided for these programs, which experts said can cost as much as $200,000 each a year. Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), a longtime supporter of needle exchange, championed a bill (S-1266) – now awaiting the governor’s signature – that would make these programs permanent. While the legislation does not include any funding, Vitale worked with Democratic leaders to include $95,000 in the fiscal year 2017 budget for these efforts, but Christie vetoed that line item when he signed the measure into law at the end of June.

“The state needs to be a partner in this, a major funder,” said Vitale, who has been working with stakeholders in search of new funding opportunities. “That doesn’t mean we should exclude other funders from assisting, but the state needs to step up,” he said, adding, “I encourage the governor to get involved.”

[related]Federal funding for syringe access has also been scarce. In 2010 Congress overturned a decades-long ban on using public dollars for these programs, fulfilling a campaign promise from President Barack Obama, but the move was reversed a year later. In late 2015 Congress amended that prohibition, allowing federal dollars to be spent on salaries and operational expenses but not needles themselves.

Needle-exchange programs allow IV drug users to exchange their used or “dirty works” for clean syringes. They also provide addicts with health screenings for diabetes or other conditions, offer immediate care for wounds or other urgent health needs, and connect addicts with social services and drug treatment programs, if and when they are ready.

Studies have shown the programs are successful in reducing the rates of blood-borne diseases, which are easily spread by shared needles, while not attracting more people to drug use – a common concern for critics. Nationwide, more than 200 programs now exist in three dozen states, according to advocates.

Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance, a supporter of the programs, said findings released by the administrations of Christie and former Gov. Jon S. Corzine have determined these programs are successful. “The programs are preventing HIV and hepatitis C and saving lives. They provide a bridge to drug treatment and other services — the only connection to help many people have,” Scotti said. “It is unconscionable that the state is not funding them and that they are in danger of closing.”

Earlier this month, Georgett Watson of the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, which runs the Camden area program, launched a GoFundMe campaign to secure the $95,000 vetoed from the budget to help exchanges across the state. So far, $2,463 has been pledged.

“The Syringe Access Programs have been struggling for years on shoe-string budgets with no public funding to purchase syringes and other supplies. The little money they had for supplies is running out! One of the programs had to shut down syringe access services two months ago, turning clients in need away at their door. Another program will run out of supplies shortly. All of the programs and the people they serve are in desperate need of support!” the campaign states.

Watson’s petition is not the first such effort. In Paterson, the Well of Hope Community Development Corporation started a GoFundMe campaign in February that has so far raised a meager $723 toward a $100,000 goal online, but also prompted other contributions offline. The organization runs a host of social service programs, including a syringe access program that is now surviving primarily on small foundation grants and donated supplies.

Nicole Engel, with Well of Hope, said the goal was to raise awareness about the importance of the program, in addition to generating cash. “I understand some people aren’t comfortable with this (concept of needle exchange), I get it. But they don’t understand the concept of harm reduction,” she said.

By working with drug users over time and without imposing judgment, Engel said program staff gain their confidence and can help clients address chronic health concerns or cut down on their use of illegal substances, if not actually get clean. “People don’t wake up one day and say they’re going to be a heroin addict,” she said. “Wouldn’t you rather have them working toward abstinence than not at all?”