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Needle Exchange Program at Risk of Shut Down

Needle Exchange Program at Risk of Shut Down

Author: Justin Mckibben

The whole state of Maine has seen a pretty hideous side of the opiate epidemic and is not excluded from the rising drug problems in this country. In 2015 alone Maine experienced 272 overdose deaths, which was a staggering increase of 31% in one years time. So with the issue being so real for the people in these communities, why is it that the city of Portland would be getting rid of its respected needle exchange program?

The Governor of Maine, Paul LePage, is no stranger to controversial commentary when it concerns drug addiction and substance abuse. He has repeatedly been quotes for making some pretty questionable statements notoriously saturated in stigma and even racism. On one occasion he even had the audacity to say that guys named “D-Money” would be flooding Maine to sell drugs and impregnate all their white women… yes, this is an actual thing he said… and now the state is facing a pretty serious danger by eliminating a huge resource.

India Street Public Health Center Needle Exchange Program

In any state these public health service programs can help, and in places like Portland they have become progressive institutions for saving lives. This particular program, offered by the India Street Public Health Center, offers a range of services that have a huge impact on the community when it comes to the health risks of drug abuse, such as:

  • Collecting 150,000 syringes a year
  • Offers vital HIV and hepatitis C testing
  • Provides overdose prevention and harm reduction education

Throughout the state the opioid overdose antidote Narcan has been made available with a prescription, which only increases the benefit of the needle exchange program operating in a clinical setting because the clinical staff can write prescriptions for the overdose antidote, and other staff can then distribute Narcan kits to those at risk of an overdose. While some in Maine are working progressively to help, others are willing to skimp on the bill.

Possibly one of the most troubling aspects of the potential shut-down of this facility is that there is no plan in place to continue this program, which is currently operated with donated supplies.

Cutting the Budget

The threat comes from when Portland City Manager Jon Jennings proposed a budget that would eliminate the funding for the India Street Public Health Center, which seems pretty irresponsible consider this facility houses several important healthcare programs besides the needle exchange such as:

  • The states only STD clinic
  • Positive Healthcare- A program providing primary care and HIV specialty care

These services are not reproduced anywhere else in Portland, or in the state of Maine, and transitioning them without a clear plan could result in many vulnerable people falling through the cracks.

All these programs, including the needle exchange, are 85% grant funded, while the city of Portland contributes to infrastructure costs and fringe benefits for the employees.

Jennings and other officials did propose the programs be moved to Portland Community Health Center (PCHC) and the non-profit Federally Qualified Health Center, but this hypothetical transition does nothing to account for the complex nature of the illnesses they are dealing with, and does not provide a seamless switch in services. Some of these programs may not even get the necessary funding upon switching, so really there is no concrete plan to support these services.

Fighting Back the Bad Budget

The part that makes you cringe is that Jennings proposal conveniently provides funding to expand the city-run golf course and restaurant. So yea, it seems LePage isn’t the only politician in Maine who thinks the lives of addicts are less valuable than others… or even less valuable than an afternoon of golf and brunch.

Even Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling opposes the budget that plans to close the programs, and said in a speech to the council that Jennings is devoting more resources to public works than public health. Last week groups of protesters took to the street to urge city council members to vote against closing the clinic. The council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 16.

With all this hanging in the balance- HIV treatment, STD testing and a needle exchange program that could be helping the city avoid even more devastating death rates- hopefully the politicians have heard the people of Portland loud and clear and will not follow in the beliefs of LePage or Jennings in trying to shrug the responsibility of treating addicts and others suffering from stigmatized illnesses off on someone else to make more room in the budget.

How big does this golf course need to be, anyway?

Needle exchange programs and other means of harm reduction have become an integral part of the new wave of public health solutions, and shutting down programs designed to preserve life should never be a question of having room in the budget.

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