TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – With scores of medical school students in the audience, a House health-care panel Tuesday approved a bill that would allow counties across the state to establish syringe and needle exchange programs in an effort to cut down on the spread of hepatitis C and HIV.
Members of the House Health Quality Subcommittee voted 9-1 to send the bill (HB 171) to the House Judiciary Committee, where it will be considered next.
“I am just happy we have come to this point, and I’m looking forward to it going to its next stop and making its way to the House floor,” bill sponsor Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, told The News Service of Florida.
The Senate version (SB 366) is slated to be heard Thursday by the Appropriations Committee. If passed, it will be available for consideration by the full Senate.
Jones said he’s confident the proposal will pass the House because it has the support of House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
Before passing the measure Tuesday, the House panel agreed to tag on an amendment that makes it identical to the Senate version.
The bills would expand a pilot program in Miami-Dade County by allowing additional counties to take part, so long as county commissions sign off. Counties would contract with entities such as hospitals, health clinics or medical schools to operate the programs. State money could not be used, but counties could fund the programs.
The Legislature initially approved allowing the University of Miami in 2016 to establish a needle-exchange program. The law was called the Florida Infectious Disease Elimination Act, or IDEA. However, the 2016 law only allowed the pilot program in Miami-Dade and banned the use of state funds to purchase clean needles and syringes.
Since starting in December 2016, the Miami-Dade program has taken 275,000 used syringes off the streets.
Of the 1,000 people enrolled in the program, 85 percent reported using opioids, 42 percent tested positive for hepatitis C and 8 percent test positive for HIV.
While a big part of the reason for the program was the reduction of HIV and AIDS cases, medical-student volunteers say it also has played a vital role in the state’s war on the opioid crisis and has helped reverse 1,100 opioid overdoses with the drug Narcan.
Margaret Ginoza, is a 25-year-old University of Miami medical student who helps manage a student- run free clinic at the university that treats indigent people. She said the clinic wouldn’t be as successful as it is without the Miami- Dade needle exchange program.
“They have set up this position of trust within the community that gets people into care who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the medical system” or wouldn’t trust the system, she said.
Ginoza said there is interest in establishing similar programs statewide if the bill passes.
“We’ve heard from students and faculties at other schools, so we know there’s interest from other medical schools and organizations around the state,” she said.