Madison County defunds needle exchange program

ANDERSON, Ind. - A needle exchange program in Madison County is coming to an end after the county council voted to prohibit funding.

The program allowed drug users to turn in dirty syringes for clean ones.

Tuesday night, the Madison County Council voted 5 to 2 for an ordinance that denies appropriation of funds to the program for supplies, equipment and labor for operating it. The county council's appropriation power includes donations, gifts and grants.

The vote left the Madison County Health Department clearing its shelves of supplies Wednesday.

"It was more than a syringe, I mean it was checking in with people," Stephenie Grimes, a public health coordinator at the health department, said.

Grimes said the program not only provided clean needles, but helped connect participants with everything from food services to substance abuse programs.

Since its start in August 2015, the exchange program grew to 554 active participants and 335 inactive participants.

"I just feel like we reached an agreement, but for some it was too late," Grimes said.

Tuesday's vote comes days after the health department and prosecutor reached an agreement for a one on one exchange after the prosecutor spoke out about dirty needles left in public places.

"It leaves thousands of needles on the streets, in our parks, and on our street corners and our parking lots and our community. It was just unacceptable," Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings said.

According to the Madison County Health Department, more than 229,000 syringes were handed out from Aug. 5, 2015 to June 30, 2017, with about 53 percent of syringes returned.

However, after implementing strategies to increase the return rate, the health department said it saw 99 percent of syringes returned in April, 89 percent of syringes returned in May and 86 percent of syringes returned in June.

Health officials hope the program helps prevent the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV. But without the program, Grimes has concerns.

"There's no doubt in my mind that it's gonna increase Hepatitis C and increase HIV," Grimes said.

Madison County Sheriff Scott Mellinger said he doesn't discount concerns about needles left in public places, but said the number of people in the jail testing positive for Hepatitis C decreased significantly the past two years.

"My fear is that without the program here in Madison County that we will see a rise in the number of people with Hepatitis C within the jail and if those people stay here for very long the county will be liable for their medical bills," Mellinger said.

Local governments across the state are left making the same decision whether to have a program.

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill released this statement:

"Local governments are tasked by the State with making the call of having a program or not. The Madison County Commissioners and Council clearly put a great deal of thought into their decision that tries to strike a balance between issues of public safety and issues of public health."

The health department said it's looking into whether it could hand off the program to a non-profit organization.

FOX59 News reached out to council members who voted in favor of the ordinance,  but did not hear back.