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Needle exchange program for Miami-Dade County advances in Florida Senate

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Legislation that would authorize the University of Miami and its affiliates to establish a single sterile needle and syringe exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade County as a means to prevent the transmission of blood-borne diseases passed unanimously in a Senate committee this morning.

The bill (SB 1040)  is being advanced by Palm Gardens Democrat Oscar Braynon, It’s been a goal for legislators and medical professionals in Miami for several years now.

“The evidence that needle exchanges prevents HIV and hepatitis is as strong as evidence that smoking cessation prevents cancer,” said Hansel Tookes, a resident physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital, who testified in support of the bill.

He then proceeded to explain how much the state would save by implementing such a program. Citing a House analysis, he said that if just 10 percent of the people who inject drugs into their body living in Miami with HIV had had their infections prevented, the state would have saved $124 million in treatment costs.

Tookes added that he and some of his colleagues are about to publish a paper that reports that $11.4 million in costs to Jackson Memorial over the past year for infections related to injection drug use.

And he said that over 40 percent of those infected and treated at Jackson were on Medicaid, meaning that “everyone in this room was footing the bill for these preventable infections.”

Activist Michael Rajner praised the legislation as well, but said needle exchange programs are needed beyond Miami-Dade, specifically mentioning Broward County. “But we understand that for the Legislature to study something, this is a great step forward.”

Needle exchange programs have been in effect in places like New York and California for decades. Yesterday in Indiana, lawmakers approved a measure that would allow high-risk counties to create needle exchange programs following an HIV outbreak in southern Indiana.

There is a companion bill being sponsored in the Florida House by Sunrise Democrat Katie Edwards.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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