High hopes for Tenn. needle exchange programs to serve as ‘bait’ for treatment

Photo: WKRN

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Few bills on Tennessee’s Capitol Hill are presented as “life savers,” but that’s exactly what Senator Steve Dickerson did to successfully pass his bill to combat IV drug abuse.

The measure, which overwhelmingly passed both the Tennessee House and Senate, authorizes statewide needle exchange programs as long as they have other services to treat and counsel those who inject themselves with drugs.

“It’s a rare circumstance when I can look at you at say, ‘This bill is going to save people’s lives,’ ” said Sen. Dickerson, who is also an anesthesiologist. “But this bill will save people’s lives and save the taxpayers literally tens of millions of dollars a year.”

He added that no taxpayer funds would be involved and it will help keep the state from spending tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on each case of HIV or Hepatitis C.

The Republican Dickerson, who represents a Nashville district, said a needle exchange program “is a difficult thing for a lot of conservatives wrap their head around,” but he was able to get critical support from Republican Governor Bill Haslam, the Tennessee Department of Health and even Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch.

Sen. Dickerson said the bill is necessary in Tennessee where potentially deadly HIV and Hepatitis C cases are on the rise.

“They do not have access to clean needles, but they are desperate individuals so they will take a needle and inject it. The guy next to him will use it and then on down the line,” the lawmaker and doctor told News 2.

The bill will authorize needle exchange programs administered by non-profit groups, who along with giving addicts clean needles after one use, will offer treatment, counseling and other social services as part as part of the deal.

“What you see with the needle exchange is sort of the bait–as it were–to draw these folks to get exposed to the social services,” added the lawmaker.

Dickerson said that with these “wrap around programs” of the social services to go with the needle exchange, “You see a decrease in HIV, a decrease in Hepatitis C and a decrease IV drug use in study after study.”

The bill is called a framework with many of the details still to being written by the Tennessee Department of Health.

Non-profits, like Nashville Cares, are some of the likely groups that would administer the needle exchange and treatment programs.