INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana's incoming governor pledged Thursday to roll back some restrictions on needle exchanges that his predecessor, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, signed into law as part of the state's response to its largest HIV epidemic.
Republican Eric Holcomb, who takes office next week, said he believes local officials — not the state — should be able to authorize needle exchanges, a move he characterized as a "prudent step." Health experts, who criticized Pence's response to the crisis, say exchanges can dramatically curtail deadly outbreaks by allowing intravenous drug users to swap dirty needles for clean ones.
"When we open the newspaper and you see the obituaries it's heartbreaking and we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg," Holcomb said during a news conference outlining an agenda for his first year in office. "We know it goes much, much deeper below the surface affecting our families."
A spokesman for Pence, who backed Holcomb to succeed him as governor after Donald Trump tapped him for the Republican ticket, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 2015, Scott County, in southern Indiana, saw the number of people infected with the HIV skyrocket, with nearly 200 people testing positive for the virus in a span of months. Indiana law at the time prohibited needle exchanges, exacerbating the outbreak, which primarily infected intravenous users of the painkiller Opana.
Pence had long opposed needle exchanges but was persuaded to issue an executive order allowing one in Scott County, which lies about 30 miles north of Louisville, Kentucky. And despite his own misgivings — Pence said he didn't support the exchanges as an "anti-drug policy" — he signed a law allowing the state government to approve them on a case-by-case basis.
At the time, Pence said he was acting to halt the spread of the virus "despite my reservations" about providing clean needles to addicts.
But the process has been fraught with bureaucracy and often put road blocks up in impoverished areas where multiple counties sought to pool resources, said Beth Meyerson, co-director of the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention at Indiana University.
About 25 counties have taken steps to adopt needle exchanges, but currently only three counties, including Scott County, have active programs, according to state data and Meyerson.
"This is terrific news," said Meyerson. "Now it's a different day and a different administration."
Meyerson urged Holcomb and lawmakers to also make more money available for the areas that are hardest hit, which are often poor. A 2015 report by the Trust for America's Health ranked Indiana 43rd in public health spending, with $13.08 spent per capita. She also encouraged Holcomb to seek federal funding for needles exchanges — something Pence didn't do.
"The prior governor (Pence) did not want federal funding drawn down for anything, let alone public health," she said.
Holcomb's proposal is part of a package of initiatives he is launching to combat drug abuse. He also wants to stiffen punishment for pharmacy robberies and limit the number of narcotics that can be prescribed, or picked up from a pharmacy, at one time. Holcomb has also created a position in his administration that will serve as the state's drug czar and look for ways to increase funding for efforts like needle exchanges.
One factor that made Indiana's 2015 outbreak so severe is that the virus spread quickly while lawmakers and Pence contemplated what action to take.
Holcomb said these are matters that local officials can best address because they "have the ability to get out of the gate fast."