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Harm reduction is exchange program goal

By BOB HANSEN - bhansen@newsexaminer.com

A small group of professionals in health care and social work is working quietly to reestablish what has formerly been known as the Fayette County syringe exchange or needle exchange.

Before reopening it, staff of the Family Services and Prevention Program are renaming it to better reflect its purpose: Fayette County Harm Reduction Program. This group, also known as Communities That Care, is working with professionals from the IU School of Public Health and the Indiana State Department of Health and other partners to restructure the program. It had fallen apart during the sale of Fayette Regional Health System, which had been operating it.

If all goes as hoped, the program could reopen in the first part of the new year, Sarah Rathburn, director of the local FSPP office, housed in The Ha*ven at 901 Meyer Ave. Right now, the group is doing research on local needs and best practices for operating the program.

“We have to learn what this illness is (substance abuse disorder) so we are doing a lot of data gathering,” Rathburn said. “What we do is regimented. It has to meet strict standards. Programs and processes have to be evidence based before being implemented, and there has to be follow up.”

Charmin Gabbard has joined the staff at FSPP and will coordinate the work of the harm reduction program. As many in the community know, Gabbard is a substance abuse disorder survivor who has been “clean” for almost six years, and has been active in combating it.

It is likely, Gabbard said, that the program will be open two days a week.

The program will relocate to Meridian Health Services, 707 W. 3rd St., where medical and mental health professionals can be consulted if needed.

Reid Health has pledged its support for staffing and furnishing some of the supplies. Reid renewed its commitment Thursday. In an email to the Connersville News-Examiner, CEO Craig Kinyon wrote,  “We are very pleased to support Fayette County in the same manner in which we support Wayne County” for the program.

The Indiana State Department of Health provides most of the supplies. The state will not furnish syringes and doesn’t allow government money to be spent for them. Private sources, such as foundations, provide them.

According to a state Health Department representative who attended a meeting here in early August, such programs have proven to be the most successful way to reduce the spread of deadly hepatitis C and AIDS. Rathburn said the ISDH is developing new and more accountable ways of collecting data about the effectiveness of the programs operating in Indiana.

Structure and accountability is what the Board of County Commissioners asked for when it voted in August to renew the program. The commissioners had originally authorized the program in 2016 after a spate of deaths from drug overdoses and several local cases of hepatitis C, a deadly liver disease that can be spread by the re-use of syringes.

Rathburn said the program has never been strictly about giving clean syringes to people who illicitly use drugs. While the program does provide syringes, it also provides other supplies to help stop the spread of disease, including a cooker, a tourniquet, cotton pads, sterile water and alcohol swabs. The reasoning is that all of those items can carry the hep-C virus. Some of it also can carry HIV but it has a much shorter life.

“If you’re coming in for needles, OK, but when you’re ready for something else, we’ll be ready to help you,” Rathburn said.

Responding to a criticism that the program “enables” people to continue using drugs, staff member Kay Riker-Peyton said, “This program does not enable.”

Gabbard added, “The only thing it enables is to reduce the threat of spreading disease.”

Holly Dunn, another FSPP staff member, recalled that in a previous job where she worked with high school students, five freshman girls had come to her worried they were pregnant from a boy who turned out to be infected with hep-C. None of the girls were pregnant, none had hep-C, and the boy got treatment. She used that as an example of how the disease can be spread quickly in the local population: each of those girls, if infected, could have spread it to others.

Along with the supplies, information is included in the packets about services for people with substance abuse disorder. The hope is that people who are taking advantage of the supplies also are more likely to be ready to try to get professional help for the disorder.

The program will also include a navigator, Gabbard said. That’s a person who can help people find health insurance or other programs to help pay for treatment of substance abuse disorder. Many times, people want to get help but think they can’t afford it, she said.

The program had been operated out of the Fayette County Health Department for several months but the hospital took it over in early 2018, operating it from a building on Indiana Avenue. When the hospital sold, that building was not included and hospital staff was reassigned. The program stopped.

Now, Gabbard said, the closest place for people to obtain the services of a syringe exchange is in Richmond.