Needle exchange faces cuts

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and AIDS activists gathered Thursday at City Hall to protest proposed state budget cuts that would reduce funding for Connecticut’s needle-exchange programs by 20 percent.

Speakers at the press conference emphasized the success of the state’s needle-exchange programs in preventing the spread of HIV and said Governor M. Jodi Rell’s proposed budget — which would eliminate approximately $100,000 of the programs’ current $488,000 budget — would greatly limit their ability to stem the spread of HIV. The needle exchanges allow intravenous drug users to exchange dirty needles for new sterilized ones.

Matthew Lopes ’72, the chair of the  Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS, argues against proposed cuts in the program’s funding. DeStefano stands in the background.
June Torbati
Matthew Lopes ’72, the chair of the Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS, argues against proposed cuts in the program’s funding. DeStefano stands in the background.

One of the first programs of its kind in the nation, the New Haven Needle Exchange Program was established in 1990. The program gained traction in 1991 when Yale professors Edward Kaplan and Robert Heimer published a study showing a 33 percent reduction in the number of infected needles retrieved by needle-exchange staff. There are currently five syringe-exchange programs, or SEPs, in Connecticut, with others in Danbury, Stamford, Bridgeport and Hartford, and hundreds of others around the nation.

The cuts were proposed by the Connecticut Department of Public Health and will be considered by the legislature in June after they are reviewed by the Appropriations Committee.

DeStefano said the proposal represents an attitude among policymakers that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is under control.

“Success should not be punished, and the problem is not over,” he said.

Rell’s office could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Connecticut State Representative William Dyson, who serves New Haven’s 94th Assembly District, said the cuts are reasonable and to be expected when different programs are competing for the same money.

“Someone had to make a decision about something,” Dyson said. “It may not necessarily speak to the quality or the need for the programs, it just may be that this year they chose to make this cut.”

Joanne Montgomery, chair of the Greater Hartford Ryan White Planning Council, which is commissioned by the federal government to identify gaps in area HIV care and services, said the proposed budget is shortsighted because cutting funding to needle-exchange programs will lead to an increase in the number of people infected with HIV. Montgomery said it costs $40,000 to $50,000 per year to care for an HIV/AIDS patient.

Matthew Lopes ’72 EPH ’77, chair of the Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS, said the proposed cuts, if spread evenly throughout the five Connecticut programs, would most likely eliminate the Danbury and Stamford programs while badly crippling operations in Hartford and New Haven.

Lopes said the programs currently do not have the ability to exchange syringes in the evening or on the weekends, and the cuts will limit their operations even further.

“If anything, we should’ve had increases in our funding,” he said.

Connecticut HIV/AIDS activists expressed hope that media attention would pressure legislators to restore the programs’ funding. Connecticut AIDS Coalition Director of Public Policy Shawn Lang said she has been pleased with the response she has seen from legislators who oppose the budget cuts and remains “cautiously optimistic” about her organization’s ability to successfully lobby against the decrease. The state attempted to cut SEP budgets about four years ago by 21 percent, Lang said, but the proposal failed.

According to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, Hartford has the largest number of AIDS cases in the state, with 1,480 patients, while New Haven has 1,150 infected residents and Bridgeport reported 786 residents living with AIDS. 48 percent of HIV infections in the Elm City result from intravenous drug use.

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