Health Right Urges City Not to Criminalize Needle Possession

Mar 22, 2018

The free clinic West Virginia Health Right held a press conference yesterday (Wednesday) in Charleston in response to a newspaper article that lumped Health Right’s Needle exchange program in with the City of Charleston. Charleston’s needle exchange program recently came under fire from Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Police Chief Steve Cooper due to an increase in the number of needles found in public places.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department launched a needle exchange program in 2015 to reduce the risk of exposure to HIV and hepatitis C.

Supporters of the program point to the low rate of HIV outbreaks in Charleston as well as a decrease in Hepatitis C cases as proof the program’s working.

But Charleston City Council is considering legislation that would criminalize needle possession.

Health Right CEO Angie Settle argues her organization’s needle exchange program has been around since 2011, four years before the city’s, and has helped a lot of people.

“It happened because we’re a medical home,” she said. “We started to see an uptick in the opioid problem. We started to see people with IV drug use. We had patients coming in presenting, saying they had diabetes and they would get insulin prescribed and then they would leave the insulin.”

She said they quickly realized what was going on.

“And at that point we made an internal decision to really try to comprehensively talk to those people. Try to get them to rehab. If they’re at the point where they absolutely will not go to rehab we wanted to have a safeguard because we also test for hepatitis C and HIV and we have a program there for that. So we wanted to have a mechanism to prevent the transmission of disease.”

Settle said Health Right takes a hard line with their needle exchange program. Participants are issued 30 needles. If they don’t bring 30 back, they’re out. When they come in for the exchange, they also have the option to meet with a social worker to talk about rehab or get treated for other ongoing health conditions.

She said about one in three people in the program end up entering rehab.

“Now I’m not saying they do it on that visit, it may be the second visit, it may be the third visit, they may be here out and about and suddenly a week later they’re ready to go into treatment.”

Settle said she hopes city officials will consider a compromise approach to keeping the harm reduction programs open.

Health Right is making a change to the kind of needles it provides in response to the recent criticism from city officials. The new needles are retractable -- meaning that once used, they’re sealed in plastic.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Marshall Health, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.