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Miami-Dade's 'Successful' Needle Exchange Program May Soon Be Copied Around The State

Ryan Dailey

Legislation aiming to expand Miami-Dade’s successful needle exchange program to other counties is advancing through the Senate. The three-year-old program has even changed some doubters’ minds.

It’s called the Infectious Disease Elimination Program. What started as a one-for-one needle exchange has developed into what the bill’s sponsor calls a “one-stop shop” for those who need services. Miami Democratic Senator Oscar Braynon addressed the Senate Health Policy Committee Tuesday.

“This is more than just a needle exchange,” Braynon said. “This has become a roving triage and health center for these people who do not have access, do not take the time to go get AIDS tests, Hepatitis C tests, to treat infections.”

The program was launched three years ago by medical students from the University of Miami. Braynon says the data since then speaks for itself.

“The program has been quite the success. Miami-Dade County is one – if not the only county in Florida – that has a reduction in its overdoses and opioid deaths,” Braynon told the Committee.

The Miami-Dade legislator adds there is another valuable aspect of the program when it comes to breaking the cycle of addiction.

“It also has become a place where we can bring them in to get them exposed to the possibility of going to rehab, and getting rid of this terrible addiction that they have,” Braynon said.

Under Braynon’s measure, counties have to opt in to start their own programs. He says it is funded by local dollars, and no state money is used.

The medical students who developed the program were on hand Tuesday as Braynon’s bill got a committee green light.

Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
Miami-Dade's needle exchange program has reportedly reversed more than 1,100 opioid overdoses by distributing doses of the drug Narcan.

Tyler Bartholomew is a PhD student at Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. He says Miami-Dade County ranks atop the entire country in new HIV infections.

“In the midst of this opioid crisis, it really has been a portal into the healthcare system — how we can access this population, get them Narcan that can reverse an overdose, and get people into substance abuse treatment,” Bartholomew said.

University data says about 1,100 opioid overdoses have been reversed using Narcan provided by the program.  

Maggie Ginoza works for a student-run free clinic that the University operates in partnership with the needle exchange. She says many who use the program’s services likely wouldn’t seek help elsewhere.

“It’s been a really incredible opportunity to get people into care for things like wound care related to injection drug use – as well as general health issues that otherwise might not be able to get access to care, because the exchange is in this position of trust with the community,” Ginoza said at the Capitol Tuesday. “And we’re able to get people into care who otherwise might not see a doctor or might not show up to a health center and trust the health system.”

Credit Ryan Dailey / WFSU-FM
Florida Senator Dennis Baxley, middle, spoke at the Health Policy Committee meeting Tuesday. He says Miami's needle exchange program, which he used to doubt, has proven "successful."

The results have even made a believer of one of the program’s doubters. Republican Senator Dennis Baxley says his apprehension to support such a program has gone away.

“I was one who was always scrupulously conscious that we could be creating a codependency in these situations, and we may actually be creating more addiction by supporting the negative habits. And in some way, when we do these things, are extremely cautious,” Baxley said. “I just want to say that everything that has happened over this three-year journey has demonstrated a very successful program.”

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.