Health board nixes needle exchange startup in Colorado Springs

October 22, 2013 Updated: October 22, 2013 at 6:55 am

Unwilling to offer free needles to drug users, the El Paso County Public Board of Health voted against the creation of Colorado Springs' first needle exchange program.

"I don't see enough of a correlation between giving someone a free clean needle and them not using it," said El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen, who sits on the board and was one of six members to vote against the proposal. "They're still going to leave and go use it."

The Board of Health's decision Monday ended a two-year push to start a program at the nonprofit Southern Colorado AIDS Project's office at 1301 S. 8th St. - leaving Denver, Fort Collins, Boulder and Grand Junction as the state's only cities to feature needle exchanges.

The proposal mimicked similar needle exchange programs across the nation, which have grown in popularity since the 1980s as a means to combat the spread of AIDS and hepatitis C.

Using a $30,000 budget, the nonprofit sought to provide clean needles to drug users who agreed to register with the organization and take an assessment. Participants would have been offered substance abuse resources and classes to fight addiction, though none would have been mandatory.

Participants could exchange dirty syringes for a new one, or they could simply ask for a clean needle.

Colorado law requires county officials to approve needle exchange programs.

Advocates for the program derided the 6-3 vote as politically motivated.

"A lot of things they brought up are political issues," said Robert Blair, regional director of the Southern Colorado AIDS Project. "This is a public health issue. And it shows that they divided those two."

To several board members, the program appeared to be little more than a means to increase drug use along 8th Street. Some also chided the nonprofit's leaders for failing to get enough public input before seeking approval - a sticking point that kept the program from initially gaining approval two months ago.

In August, El Paso County Public Health director Jill Law sent letters seeking the opinions of police and fire department chiefs in Colorado Springs, Fountain, Manitou Springs and Monument.

Law said she never received a negative response.

During the meeting, though, the Colorado Springs Fire Department became the first local agency to formally oppose the program, citing the prospect of increased 911 calls.

"Whenever there's illicit drug use, our call volume goes up," said Jeff Martin, the Fire Department's community and public health administrator.

Board members also recalled hearing myriad concerns from the heads of at least three law enforcement agencies during private conversations.

"I have consistently said this: It's enabling," said Helen Collins, a board member who also serves on the Colorado Springs City Council. "I totally disagree with it, and I won't vote for it."

Sharon Brown, a Fountain city councilwoman; El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark; Dr. James Terbush, a Navy captain; and Victoria Broerman, a nurse, also voted against the proposal.

El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux joined Kari Kilroy, executive assistant to Memorial Hospital's chief executive, and C.J. Moore, a Kaiser Permanente public affairs director, in voting for the program.

In the process, Bux implored the board to consider the cost of not approving the program.

While syringes cost mere cents, hospital bills can total thousands of dollars - a troubling prospect considering that drug users are typically uninsured. A typical hepatitis C treatment can cost $15,000 to $20,000 for 48 weeks of drug therapy, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

"The fact is that when somebody comes down with AIDS or hepatitis, the burden on society is hundreds of thousands of dollars before it's all over," Bux said.


Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654

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