March 4, 2009
On Tuesday by a 5-1 vote, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee approved a bill that would prevent district attorneys from prosecuting needle-exchange programs (NEPs) operated by local health departments. The measure now goes to the full Senate.
Texas is the only state that does not permit NEPs of any kind. Sen. Robert Deuell (R-Greenville), a physician who introduced the bill, said evidence from other states shows the programs are effective at preventing disease. "There has been much critical evidence to show that it decreases HIV and hepatitis in those communities," he said. "Which alleviates a lot of human suffering, but it also saves states money because the people who contract HIV and hepatitis, more often than not, end up having state programs or services."
In 2007 after a statewide NEP measure Deuell sponsored passed the Senate but was left pending in the House health committee, a pilot program for Bexar County only was added to Medicaid legislation. However, the state attorney general ruled last year that the measure's language left program operators open to prosecution for possessing drug paraphernalia. Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed warned local officials she would uphold that ruling.
Law enforcement and health officials support the bill, saying it will help prevent the spread of disease among drug users and their families, children who find dirty needles, and others who are stuck by contaminated syringes. "My partners were stuck with needles when we were executing search warrants," retired Bexar County Constable Jimmy Wilborn told the committee on Tuesday.
According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, 100 new cases of HIV could be prevented in the first year of implementing an NEP.