The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to restore funding for five needle exchange programs across the county designed to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS through intravenous drug use.
The Department of Public Health began funding needle exchange programs three years ago, with the same five programs sharing $500,000 from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement to support their work. Last June, however, the contracts expired, and the programs were not given applications to renew their contracts, resulting in a reduction to the needle exchange services the agencies were able to offer during the past nine months. The current grant runs until June 30, when the organizations will be able to apply for an additional $500,000 for the following year.
“I’m not happy about the funding gap,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, 3rd District. “We’ve been involved in needle exchange for years. Needle exchange, properly implemented, can and does save lives, and L.A. County should be at the forefront of that effort.”
According to the report from the Director of the Department of Public Health, Jonathan Fielding, to the board of supervisors, the applications for new contracts were delayed first because of “limited staffing,” and then again “due to staff time devoted to H1N1 activities.”
“There was a nine month gap because our department has few resources,” said Anna Long, Fielding’s chief of staff. “We wanted to be able to make sure that the agencies were able to continue services as soon as possible, but the department had the overwhelming problem of H1N1 to deal with, and staff was otherwise occupied.”
All of the five agencies that have received county funding also receive funds from the City of Los Angeles. Bienestar Human Services, a nonprofit organization specifically geared towards the Latino LGBT community, receives $45,000 annually in city funding, and was able to continue its mobile needle exchange services. However, its storefront location in East Los Angeles, which had been run with funding from the county, had to be shut down during the past nine months.
Though Bienestar has an office in Hollywood, where they offer HIV-prevention programs, support groups, and case management, needle prevention efforts are concentrated in East L.A., where the need is greatest. Gavino Hernandez, syringe exchange coordinator for Bienestar, said the mobile units usually collect between 500 and 700 needles a day.
“They are mostly return clients,” Hernandez said. “Some we see every week, some once a month. The most regular ones are the ones that are a little more stable, maybe they have somewhere to live, maybe even a job. Some others we’ll see once in Lincoln Heights, and the next time in Boyle Heights.”
Yaroslavsky joined Supervisor Gloria Molina, 1st District, and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, 2nd District, in the majority, voting in favor to restore funding. County Supervisor Don Knabe, 4th District, voted against, while Supervisor Michael Antonovich, 5th District, was not present for the vote.
“Supervisor Antonovich was not there to vote on the bill, but he would have voted against it,” said Phillip Chen, Antonovich’s Health Deputy. “The supervisor believes funds should be allocated for prevention and treatment. These programs enable drug use, as if we as a country are saying that it’s OK to use drugs, as long as you use a clean needle.”
Yaroslavsky, however, maintained that organizations like Bienestar make the county safer.
“Nobody is getting involved in drugs through needle exchange,” Yaroslavsky said. “We’re targeting users, and getting them to use clean needles instead of sharing amongst themselves. We’re not increasing drug use. We’re reducing the number of people infected with diseases, which gives us a chance to attack their drug addiction in more direct and comprehensive ways.”
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