Federal Funding for Syringe Exchange Programs is at Risk

Some member of congress want to eliminate federal funding for needle exchange programs that have been proven to reduce HIV transmission.

By Jorge Rivas Dec 16, 2011

UPDATE: Congress agreed upon a spending deal last night, averting a federal government shut down. It’s not yet clear if syringe exchange funding is included in the deal. We’ll let you know when we hear.

Federal funding for syringe exchange programs is at risk of being cut as Congress hashes out its appropriations bills for fiscal 2012, according to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the House released an omnibus spending bill that reinstates the ban on federal funding for syringes nationally and in Washington D.C.

"Some legislators apparently feel that providing federal money for clean syringes sends the wrong message and encourages drug use," said John Peller, vice president of policy for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago (AFC) in a Q&A on their site.

But in fact, "syringe exchange programs have played a major role in the decline of HIV infections through intravenous drug use," Peller went on to say.

Peller says all the evidence shows conclusively that syringe exchanges reduce HIV transmission, reduce drug use and link people to treatment.

"If the federal government is serious about reducing the deficit, elected officials should also take seriously proven-effective, science-based strategies to reduce new HIV cases, like syringe exchange," Peller said.

Below is an excerpt of a Q&A with Peller originally published on the AFC website.

AFC: What’s going on with the federal ban on syringe exchange funding right now?

John Peller: Congress is trying to wrap up spending bills for fiscal year 2012 (which started over 10 weeks ago). The Republican-led House has passed spending bills that contain a number of policy restrictions or "riders" dictating how funding can or can’t be used. One of these restrictions would prohibit using federal funding to operate syringe exchanges.

The Democratic-led Senate, however, generally opposes these funding restrictions. The Senate’s funding levels are generally higher than the House-passed funding amounts, so House members are saying that they’ll accept the higher level but at a price — Senate approval of the policy riders. It’s political horse-trading at its best.

AFC: Why do some elected officials want to ban federal funding for syringe exchanges?

JP: The federal ban on funding for syringe exchanges was put in place in the 1980s, and was repealed in 2009 by the Democratic Congress and President Obama.  The Republican-led House, however, has attempted to reinstate the ban, claiming that syringe exchanges promote drug use.  The evidence actually shows that exchanges reduce drug use and link people to treatment.

That infections went down despite the federal ban on funding is testament to the dedication and hard work of scrappy agencies like Chicago Recovery Alliance and others around the country.  However, these agencies deserve the mainstream recognition that other HIV prevention services receive.

The federal funding ban forced syringe exchanges to operate in the shadows as if they are ineffective and illegitimate, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The funding ban marginalized people who inject drugs and labeled them as throw-aways, making it even harder to link them with life-saving services.

AFC: What can people do to support maintaining the current law?

JP: We are asking advocates to call key members of the Senate.

Here are the numbers:
*Harry Reid (D-NV) Majority Leader: 202-224-3542 
*Dick Durbin (D) Majority Whip, Financial Services Subcommittee Chair: 202-224-2152
*Chuck Schumer (D) Democratic Policy Committee Chair: 202-224-6542 
*Daniel Inouye (D) Appropriations Chairman: 202-224-3934 
*Tom Harkin (D) Labor, HHS Subcommittee Chair: 202-224-3254 

The boilerplate message for all of the senators, including Sen. Reid, is:

"My name is _______.  I live in .  I support maintaining current language that allows local officials to make their own decisions to use federal and local Washington DC funds for Syringe Exchange.   Please do not change the current law in the Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations negotiations.  Thank you."