COLUMBUS — House Democrats and Republicans joined forces on Wednesday to overwhelmingly support a bill authorizing local health boards to establish syringe-exchange programs without having to first declare a public health emergency.
Despite arguments from some GOP conservatives that the measure amounts to state endorsement of intravenous drug use, the chamber voted 72-23 to send the bill to the Senate. The bill would allow IV drug users to exchange one used needle for one clean needle in an attempt to reduce cases of HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne infections.
“The program sort of slides people from use to treatment in a way that meets them where they’re at,” said Rep. Barbara Sears (R., Monclova Township), who sponsored the bill with Rep. Nickie Antonio (D., Lakewood).
“We are providing them with information when they go through the exchange process,” she said. “It’s a gentle nudge.”
She appealed to the fiscal conservatives within her party, noting that no state or federal funds would be involved in the programs and arguing that tackling Ohio’s growing heroin epidemic would lead to a healthier work force.
Some of her colleagues remained unconvinced. All but one of the “no” votes were cast by Republicans.
“[The syringes] are given to people so that they can use them as the instrument of their own destruction,” Rep. Matt Lynch (R., Solon) said. “If this is such a good idea, let me suggest that we put the great seal of the state of Ohio on every free clean needle package, so as that person lies in the gutter or a shooting gallery, they can know that this body determined that it was a good idea to help them get there.”
Support for the bill crossed partisan, urban, suburban, and rural lines as lawmakers noted that many of those now addicted to heroin or methamphetamine started out addicted to opiate painkillers that the state has been cracking down on.
“We already have a heroin problem,” Rep. Robert Sprague (R., Findlay) said. “We also, along with our heroin problem and epidemic, have a public health epidemic with Hepatitis C. ... There is no silver bullet, but this will make a difference in at least curbing the Hepatitis C part of that epidemic.”
Currently, a local board of health must first declare a health emergency before pursuing a needle exchange program.
Cleveland has had such a program since the 1990s while Portsmouth, part of the focus of southern Ohio’s opiate addiction problem, pursued it last year, according to Ms. Antonio.
She argued that such a program should reduce the health risk associated with discarded syringes along roadways and in parks.
Dr. David Grossman, Lucas County’s health commissioner, said he’s a believer in the effectiveness of needle exchange programs.
“It’s not a debate over whether they should use it, but I’d rather they use a clean one,” he said. “From a health department perspective, I would have to look at the logistics and details. I’m a believer. I don’t know the board’s feelings on this, but I think they would see the wisdom.”
He noted that preventing just one incident of a blood-borne infection such as HIV or hepatitis C would save the state money.
Joining Ms. Sears and Mr. Sprague in voting “yes” among the northwest Ohio delegation were Reps. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo), Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), Mike Sheehy (D., Oregon), Tim Brown (R., Bowling Green), Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), Jeff McClain (R., Upper Sandusky), and Matt Huffman (R., Lima).
Voting “no” were Reps. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont) and Tony Burkley (R., Payne).
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