Georgia Senate panel OKs needle exchange bill to battle HIV

A bill creating a needle exchange program to help reduce HIV rates in Georgia passed unanimously in a state Senate committee meeting on Monday.

Rep. Houston Gaines, a Republican from Athens who sponsored the legislation, said programs that allow people who inject drugs to exchange used needles for clean ones provide a number of benefits.

“This bill will help to chip away at the opioid crisis, reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis C in our state, protect non-users from needlestick injuries and save all Georgians healthcare costs,” Gaines said as he introduced the bill to the Senate Health & Human Services committee.

Gaines (top photo) added that people who inject drugs using needle exchange programs are five times more likely to enter rehab treatment programs, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

Rep. Ben Watson, a Republican from Savannah who chairs the committee, called that “a remarkable statistic.”

Jocelyn Whitfield, director of government relations for Grady Health Systems, joined officials from Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition and Aniz testifying in support of the legislation.

“This is evidence-based public health intervention that works,” she said.

Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD & TB Prevention, said needle exchange programs are “critical to the success of ending HIV in the country.” Mermin made the comments in a call with public health officials and reporters on Monday to announce a new HIV report from the CDC.

House Bill 217 now awaits a vote in the full Senate. The House Health & Human Services Committee passed it on Feb. 20 and the full House passed it on Feb. 25. It’s part of a package of Republican-led bills tackling Georgia’s worst-in-the-nation HIV epidemic.

A bill that would make it easier for HIV-positive Medicaid recipients to receive the most effective medications passed in the House on Feb. 19. It received a hearing before the Senate HHS committee on Feb. 25 but the panel did not vote on the measure.

The House passed a bill on March 1 that would provide free PrEP medication to those at high risk of contracting HIV. It’s assigned to the Senate HHS committee but has not received a hearing.