California County Supervisors Reject Plan to Keep Needle-Exchange Program Operating
Contra Costa County, Calif., supervisors on Monday rejected a plan that could have saved the county's needle-exchange program by cutting services and dropping the private agency that administers the program, the Contra Costa Times reports (Felsenfeld, Contra Costa Times, 3/4). The program was established four years ago and provides more than 35,000 clean needles to an estimated 700 injection drug users in the area each year. Community Health Empowerment/Exchange Works currently administers the program with $262,000 in funding from grants and foundations, and the county health department contributes $25,000 for syringes. Last month, Christine Leivermann, director of the county's AIDS program, said that the county Health Services Department had already spent this year's allotted funds, and that it did not have the available funds to save the program (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 2/13). The program would need $186,240 from the county's general fund to continue operating at current service levels, but Public Health Director Wendel Brunner said that the funds would have to come from another "deserving program" due to the county's budget woes. "It's simply a matter of priorities, and to give that kind of money would mean laying off staff somewhere else," Brunner said.
Brunner proposed eliminating the program's services in East County and offering a "scaled-back version" of the program in West County through Contra Costa's Health on Wheels van. Under the plan, the health department would increase its funding to $40,000. However, Supervisor Federal Glover said that many injection drug users in his district would not be able to travel to use the program in West County. "It is absolutely not an option to shut East County down," he said, adding, "We need to look for some more creative solutions." In addition, Bobby Bowens, executive director of Community Health Empowerment/Exchange Works, said that the health department would not be successful in taking over the program because clients have "developed trust" with existing program staff that would be difficult to duplicate, according to the Times. "The Health Department in no shape, fashion or form can do what we do. People just won't show up, and that means the spread of HIV and hepatitis in our communities," Bowens said. Supervisors asked Brunner to present to the full board alternate funding strategies in two weeks, the Times reports. In the meantime, the program continues to operate with needles provided by the county as an "interim measure," Bowens said (Contra Costa Times, 3/4).