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Needle exchange no longer off limits

January 12, 2016
by Julie Miller, Editor in Chief
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Two behavioral-health policies were included in the federal budget for fiscal year 2016: funding support for needle exchange programs; and a grant program for assisted outpatient treatment (AOT). Approved in December and signed by the president, the $1.15 trillion legislation basically funds the federal government through the end of September.

Needle exchange 

In 1988, Congress banned the use of federal dollars to fund needle exchange programs. In 2009, the ban was lifted, but by 2011, it was restored. The tide has turned yet again with the most recent budget deal allowing funding for the programs.

A small piece of the comprehensive federal policy includes a provision that permits limited funding to support needle exchanges. Federal funds still can’t be used to buy the needle supplies, however, money can be allocated to staff, vans that distribute needles in targeted locations, addiction counseling, referral to treatment and community outreach.

“Syringe exchange programs are on the front lines of responding to the heroin and opioid crisis, but have been shut out of access to federal funding and pushed to the margins of the public health system,” Daniel Raymond, policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition, tells Behavioral Healthcare. “By allowing more flexibility in use of federal funds for these programs, Congress has recognized that syringe exchange is part of the solution to our nation's substance use disorder problems.”

Raymond says the new funding will be especially vital for rural and suburban areas that are witnessing increasing heroin and opioid addiction, overdoses and cases of hepatitis C, a virus that is often spread through shared needles.

According to Chuck Ingoglia, policy director for the National Council for Behavioral Health, the organization will continue to watch the implementation process as specific details in the policy are made clear.

Assisted outpatient treatment

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, the legislation also includes funding for a new grant program to help local health systems implement AOT programs, marking the first time Congress has funded such efforts.

“With this funding, Congress recognizes the value of investing in programs that focus on early intervention to improve outcomes for people with severe mental illness,” said Treatment Advocacy Center Executive Director John Snook, in a statement. “AOT is a proven model for providing much needed care to those who are otherwise lost to homelessness, incarceration or an early death.”

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