By JoAnne Viviano, Columbus Dispatch
An agency that operates a program providing intravenous drug users with clean syringes says the initiative is in danger of closing on Aug. 15 if it doesn’t receive more public financial support.
The Safe Point program has been offered since January 2016 by Equitas Health with oversight from Columbus Public Health. Aimed at preventing new cases of HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases spread through needle sharing, the program also encourages addicts to enter rehabilitation and distributes naloxone, a medication that can save the lives of overdosing opioid users.
Equitas has asked Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s office, the City Council and the Franklin County Board of Commissioners for funding for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
“We have been funding the bulk of the program,” said Peggy Anderson, Equitas’ chief operating officer. “We are willing to fund a piece of it, but since it is a public health crisis, we feel it’s something our partners at the city and county should assist with.”
Equitas is open to footing $102,754 of its upcoming $462,754 budget. It is asking the mayor’s office for $150,000 and City Council and the county commissioners for $100,000 each. Another $10,000 is expected to come from the private Chicago-based Comer Family Foundation.
Currently, the city chips in $50,000 for staffing and some additional funds for naloxone.
Dr. Mysheika Williams Roberts, Columbus health commissioner, calls herself a “huge supporter” of the program. She said that she has been working with Equitas and Ginther’s office to secure funding and is confident the program will continue through this year and beyond.
Ginther’s spokeswoman Robin Davis said the mayor’s office is working with public and private entities to come up with funding.
“It’s really important for us, through this program, to be able to reduce the number of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C patients,” Davis said. “It also gives us another touch point with people who are using drugs, so we can reach out to them and get them other services they need, including services to help them treat their addictions.”
City Council spokeswoman Lee Cole and Marty Homan, a spokesman for the county commissioners, said a request for funding had only recently been received and officials would work to keep community members safe.
“We’re committed to finding a solution so that there is no gap once the August date passes and no lapse in programming or services,” Homan said.
Also involved is the Columbus Foundation, where Dan Sharpe, vice president of community research and grants management, said staff members have agreed to convene interested parties to learn how discontinuation of the program might affect the community.
In 2017, Safe Point served 3,139 people in 7,530 visits and distributed more than 1.2 million syringes. The program collected about 143,000 used needles from participants and distributed 13,600 containers to be used for off-site disposal.
Staff members provided users with 2,308 doses of naloxone and made more than 1,518 referrals for alcohol and drug treatment.
Among clients is Stacy Hill of the Hilltop, who injects methamphetamines and previously reused needles, keeping a kit on hand to sharpen and unclog them.
“It’s made it so that it is safer and easier for me to use,” she said of the program. “So I don’t have to worry about puncturing veins … and getting sick from using needles.”
Clean syringes, she said, are difficult to obtain elsewhere, and without Safe Point many users would likely turn to carrying kits and picking up needles from the ground.
“This program is keeping people healthy and safe, as much as a drug addict can be,” Hill said.
Joel Diaz, an Equitas spokesman, said he’s concerned that community discomfort with syringe-access programs might make politicians timid or afraid to to support Safe Point.
“It’s a very successful program by and large,” he said. “It’s going to be a huge loss to our community, and it’s going to be a huge blow to any programs that we’re hoping to take care of the opioid epidemic in our community.”