Maine State Rep. Ann Fredericks (R-Sanford) has submitted a request for a resolution in the second legislative session that would direct the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (MECDC) to reestablish a one-to-one requirement for its syringe exchange programs.
MECDC partners with several nonprofit organizations throughout the state to provide individuals with sterile hypodermic needles in exchange for dirty ones in an effort to reduce the spread of bloodborne illnesses and encourage the safe disposal of sharps.
An executive order signed by Gov. Janet Mills in March 2020 removed the one-to-one needle exchange requirement, meaning that MECDC’s partners could essentially hand out free syringes to individuals abusing drugs without taking dirty needles out of the community.
According to a state report on the syringe service program, nearly 7,000 individuals were enrolled in the program during 2022, and a total of approximately 2.3 million new syringes were given out — more than 300 per person.
In 2020 and 2021, the number of syringes distributed outnumbered the number of needles collected — in 2020 alone the state’s syringe service programs handed out over 2.5 million needles.
In Sanford, Rep. Fredericks’ district, the nonprofit Maine Access Points ran a syringe service program until it was shut down in July after local business owners made their concerns about the program known to the Sanford City Council.
Fredericks, who is a nurse practitioner and sits on the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, told the Maine Wire in a Monday interview that the Maine Access Points syringe exchange program was not operating as intended.
“This program is supposed to offer patients in recovery referrals to wound care, primary care, all kinds of care,” Fredericks said. “It’s supposed to retrieve the dirty needles, give the clean needles — have some accountability of who is receiving what, etc.”
“What they observed, was nothing — there was no regard for anything,” she explained. “Handing out only cleans, not taking any dirties, no identification process of anyone.”
Fredericks explained that while some of the organizations that partner with MECDC to run the syringe exchanges are health-based, such as Tri-County Mental Health Services, others are “peer recovery programs,” like Maine Access Points.
To enroll in a syringe service program, the enrollee must be 18 years or older — but the programs do not have a “compelling way” to ask enrollees for an ID to prove their age, according to Fredericks.
In July, Bangor allocated $29,000 to the organization that runs their syringe exchange, the Health Equity Alliance, to hire a part-time needle collector to pick up the used and discarded needles that they distribute.
“We’re trying to mitigate HIV spread, or hepatitis spread, or virus spread, from the stick of a dirty needle,” Rep. Fredericks said. “Well, now I’m hiring you to go pick up the dirties, so now we’re placing you at the highest risk.”
“We’re gonna hire you, and you go stick yourself. It just doesn’t make sense,” she added.
According to Fredericks, in 2020 the State of Maine was number one nationwide for acute hepatitis C, and number two for acute hepatitis B.
“Since , those numbers are coming down. That’s the good news,” Fredericks said. “Here’s the bad news: chronic hepatitis B continues to soar in Maine.”
“Now, that does not make sense,” she said. “And on the CDC site, it says 53 percent of those people with chronic hepatitis B are those that are born outside the United States.”
“It means people coming in with it,” the State Rep. added. “That’s what it means. And furthermore, it’s telling you your needle process is likely not doing what it’s supposed to do.”
At an Oct. 4 Health and Human Services Committee hearing, Rep. Fredericks confronted the newly appointed Director of MECDC, Dr. Puthiery Va, on the state’s growing hepatitis numbers and the syringe service program.
Rep. Fredericks says the goal of her proposed resolution is to reestablish the process of collecting dirty syringes before distributing clean ones — as the program was initially set up from its inception in Portland in 1998 until 2020.
“I think we have a loosey-goosey program, there’s there’s little or no oversight,” she said. “We’re supposed to be making referrals to programs, so you get someone in recovery, making referrals for an active user to go get primary care, mental health, wound care — it’s not happening.”
Fredericks is also seeking to address the disparity between certain parts of Maine that only have access to the peer recovery program-run syringe exchanges versus those that have access to the health-based programs.
“It seems that we’re not standardized in our approach, so it begs the question: are we certain in the provision of care?” she said. “Why do we give apples up here and oranges down there?”
“And because it begs the question, we’re not standardized in our approach, wouldn’t you think that that calls for more oversight?” she added.
Fredericks told the Maine Wire Monday that she does not expect to have the governor’s support on her proposed changes to the syringe exchange program, but that she feels it needs bipartisan support.
“I hope people can see how we’re mopping up the problems left behind by this, you know, no collection of dirty needles — they’re on the park benches, they’re on the beaches, they’re on the sidewalks,” she said.