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Congress Reinstates Federal Funding Ban on Needle Exchange

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House Republican legislators added language banning federal funding of needle and syringe exchange programs to key appropriations bills last week, and the Senate let the restrictions stand in the compromise legislation.

In 2009 President Obama lifted the previous ban on federal funding of needle exchange as a harm reduction measure for preventing the spread of blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis B and C, after years of effort by advocates. Studies have consistently shown that needle exchange reduces disease transmission without increasing injection drug use.

The new ban also prohibits federal money from being used to fund needle exchange in international prevention programs, but does not bar states from continuing to use their own funds; Washington, DC -- which is under federal control -- may also use its own local funding for clean needles.

"Reinstatement of the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange is an anti-science, anti-public health action that undermines our country’s efforts to fight AIDS at home and abroad,” stated amfAR vice president and director of public policy Chris Collins in a press release issued by the organization. “We can begin to end the AIDS epidemic, but that opportunity will be squandered if we turn away from what the evidence tells us works to save lives and prevent infection.”

Below is an edited excerpt from a press release issued by the Drug Policy Alliance describing the latest funding changes in more detail.

Congress to Restore Federal Syringe Exchange Funding Ban as Part of 2012 Spending Package

  • Ban on Allowing States to Use HIV Prevention Money on Life-Saving Syringe Programs was Overturned in 2009 After 20-Year Struggle
  • Reinstatement of Ban will Lead to Thousands of New HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C Cases Annually

December 16, 2011 -- As part of the 2012 spending package being voted on today, Congress is restoring a ban on using federal funding for syringe exchange programs that reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases. The ban, enacted in the 1980s and repealed in 2009, was largely responsible for hundreds of thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS directly or indirectly from the sharing of used syringes. Advocates warn that restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

“The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms -- it is outrageous that Congress is restoring it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Make no mistake about it -- members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy.”

House Republicans passed restrictive language in three separate appropriations bills, and succeeded in getting two of three bans in the current House-Senate compromise omnibus for Fiscal Year 2012 being voted on today. In addition to the overarching ban on domestic use of federal funds contained in the Labor-HHS spending bill, House republicans also succeeded in imposing a ban on use of State Department funds for syringe access in international programs. In large parts of the world the HIV/AIDS epidemic is being driven by injection drug use. The international syringe funding ban will mean the global HIV/AIDS epidemic will continue to grow.

The existing federal syringe exchange policy, signed into law by President Obama in December of 2009, allows states and local public health officials to use federal funds for syringe access, in consultation and with the consent of local law enforcement. The policy change is widely credited with having prevented thousands of new cases of HIV and hepatitis C, thereby saving many lives and improving public health and safety.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Increasing the availability of sterile syringes through exchange programs, pharmacies and other outlets also helps injection drug users obtain drug education and treatment. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

“We may have lost this battle, but we have just begun to fight,” said Piper. “The Republicans who insisted on restoring the ban, and the Democrats who didn’t fight hard enough to oppose it, will be responsible for thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C. We will make sure Americans know which members of Congress care about their health and well-being and which do not.”

12/20/11

Sources

Drug Policy Alliance. Congress to Restore Federal Syringe Exchange Funding Ban as Part of 2012 Spending Package. Press release. December 16, 2011.

amfAR. amfAR Deeply Critical of Re-Imposition of Ban on Federal Funding for Syringe Exchange. Press release. December 16, 2011.