WV Health Right needle exchange program introducing retractable needles amid city-wide scrutiny

Published: Mar. 21, 2018 at 12:26 AM EDT
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As members of Charleston City Council put together a task force to examine whether improvements can be made to the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's controversial needle exchange program, leaders of a different needle exchange in the city say their method is working with much less risk to the public.

This other program, at West Virginia Health Right in Charleston, changed what kind of needles their patients receive just this week, in efforts to keep the public safe while still helping those battling addiction.

As of the beginning of this week, all 300 monthly patients at WV Health Right's needle exchange will now be given retractable needles.

The way they work is that after someone presses on the plunger, the needle end automatically retracts back inside the syringe, meaning it's no longer a danger to stick someone else if it's left out in public.

But program director Angie Settle says Health Right sees a return rate over 90 percent, thanks to a strict return policy.

"If you come back without every needle, you will not get any more needles," Settle said. "There are no second chances."

Settle says patients are also required to speak with counselors, face-to-face, each visit.

"One in three people in our program go into rehab," Settle said. "When a harm reduction plan is done properly, it can be very successful. But you also have to be concerned about the safety of first responders, the city, our children, etcetera."

Still, many first responders, like Captain Mark Abbott with the Charleston Police Department, say strict policies and measures like retractable needles are far from perfect fixes.

"You could have needles that dissolve after they're used, it doesn't solve the problem of the element that it brings here," Abbott said. "It brings crime and lots of problems."

Program leaders at Health Right say they're hoping to have a seat on city council's task force to help brainstorm solutions to the number of needles being found in public, since, if council decides to outlaw needles, they would have to shut down their program just like the Health Department.

Settle believes there is a middle-ground solution possible.

"I think that the concept, the idea of harm reduction is important, absolutely, but there has to be safeguards in place," Settle said.

Settle says West Virginia Health Right's needle exchange program has operated as safely as possible since its inception in 2011. She says the decision to institute the program before needle possession was legalized in Charleston in December 2015, was made after realizing that addicts were desperate enough to pose as diabetic patients to receive needles. She says some even tried stealing them from their office before they began giving them away.

However, Settle says, she's always demanded that all needles be brought back to allow patients to continue in the program.

"I'm with firemen, I'm with the police, I'm with the mayor, I understand the concern, I don't want needles on the streets either," Settle said. "If that's happening, some changes need to be made, but I would suggest and recommend that each program be looked at separately."