JEFFERSON CITY — Jon Martin, director of prevention services at Vivent Health in St. Louis, was living in Scott County, Indiana, in 2015 when HIV cases in the rural area skyrocketed due to an increase in drug use injection drugs.
If there had been strategies in place to prevent the outbreak, such as needle-exchange programs, the crisis likely could have been avoided, he said.
Missouri is one of 11 states where needle exchange programs are illegal. Now the legislature is taking action to prevent a rise in drug-fueled illnesses similar to those in Indiana. Senate Bill 690, which would increase access to sterile needles, was the subject of a hearing on Tuesday. Martin testified in favor of this bill.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Sikeston, passed the Senate with bipartisan support earlier this month. This would allow any entity registered with the Department of Health and Senior Services to be exempt from laws prohibiting the distribution of drug paraphernalia.
It would also give medical professionals more freedom to administer and prescribe naltrexone hydrochloride, a drug that helps treat opioid addiction.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, needle service programs are community-based organizations that provide a safe place where individuals have access to clean needles and syringes. The programs also typically offer disposal of used needles and connect people to social services that provide drug treatment, overdose education, and testing for diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.
While needle exchange programs are currently banned from operating in Missouri, some still operate near St. Louis and Kansas City. If the bill is passed, it will legalize the activities of the programs.
Rehder stressed the importance of preventing an HIV outbreak in Missouri similar to the outbreak that occurred in Indiana in 2015.
“If we don’t do anything, it’s a question of when we’ll have an outbreak, not whether it’s going to happen,” Martin said during the hearing.
Several representatives from organizations such as the Missouri Family Health Council and the Missouri State Medical Association also appeared at the hearing to express their support for the proposal, which has not been adopted for more than five years. No witness testified in opposition. Rehder pointed out that the bill would cost the state little to no money, according to a state budget analysis.
Martin concluded his testimony at the hearing by reminding those present of the human element behind the legislation.
“Public speaking isn’t really my thing. But if I hadn’t met people who offer services very similar to what we’re talking about today, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Martin. “I’d be in jail or probably dead. So I’m going to speak out publicly on those options.”
The bill now awaits a vote from the House Emerging Issues Committee. If passed, it will be sent to the entire House for debate.