Greenfield Board of Health approves needle exchange

  • Used syringes collected by Tapestry Health’s Holyoke needle exchange. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

Recorder Staff
Published: 8/10/2016 11:01:28 PM

GREENFIELD — The Board of Health on Wednesday night approved the establishment of a new needle exchange and harm reduction program in town, following a months-long evaluation of the proposal.

The board will soon send a letter of approval to the state Department of Public Health so it can begin the process of soliciting bids from organizations to run the service.

Initially, according to town Health Director Nicole Zabko, the board’s attorney advised it to bring the proposal before Town Council, which was believed to have the authority to approve a program, but an amendment to the state budget passed last month explicitly shifted that power to local health boards.

That change will also likely solve problems around the establishment of a similar program in Holyoke, which is run by Tapestry Health, said Liz Whynott, the program director for Tapestry’s exchanges.

That program was ordered to cease needle exchange activities after questions were raised about procedural problems in its founding, but has continued to operate through alternative funding methods.

The board’s vote came after nearly a year of meetings with area officials and stakeholders — a slow, deliberative approach Board Chairman William Doyle said was designed to ensure the proposal didn’t run into those types of problems.

Proponents say needle exchanges, which the board is calling a Comprehensive Harm Reduction Program, provide safe places for drug users to turn in dirty needles and receive clean ones. The proposal was introduced in part as a response to reports of rising Hepatitis C infection locally, while rates in Northampton, where Tapestry also runs an exchange, have remained lower.

The Recorder reported in July that new hepatitis C infection have spiked 60 percent in Franklin County since 2011. The next highest rate was in Berkshire County at 28 percent, according to state data. Neither county has a needle exchange.

To the south, in Hampshire County, the increase has been a more modest 19 percent, while Hampden County, though it still has the fourth highest rate in the state, saw a 5 percent decrease since 2011. Both have at least one exchange.

The goal is to reduce the spread of disease and provide another place for health workers to connect with addicts and, hopefully, get them on the road to recovery.

The proposal, often controversial elsewhere, ran into little opposition in Greenfield, drawing favorable recommendations from the town’s police and fire chiefs, top officials from Baystate Franklin Medical Center, members of the recovery community and others. A survey by the regional Opioid Task Force found widespread support for the idea. Mayor William Martin was been the only one to raise concerns about certain aspects of the program, including liability to the town.

Representatives from Tapestry Health said the exchange, the town and other involved entities would have their own legal counsel to deal with any issues that may arise.

Cheryl Zoll, Tapestry’s chief executive officer, lauded the board’s methodical approach to the proposal.

“We thank you for your courage and for this careful process,” Zoll said. “You’re setting an example for other towns, and we appreciate that.”

Needle exchanges aren’t particularly common in Massachusetts. Since legalization in 1993, Boston, Cambridge, Northampton and the Cape Cod region, Holyoke and Worcester have opened them. Holyoke’s was recently ordered to cease providing services due to procedural issues in its founding, but Tapestry Health, which operates that program, is looking in to re-opening it without state support.

The 10-program cap on needle exchanges was recently lifted, too.

The average cost to run a program is between $85,000 and $257,000, based on the estimates from the Holyoke and Northampton programs, according to state Department of Public Health.

You can reach Tom Relihan at:
413-772-0261 ext 264


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