Wednesday, January 24, 2007

GOP doctor files needle exchange bill in Senate

All I can say is "Wow!" A conservative East Texas senator just filed a bill authorizing local governments to implement needle exchange programs. His backing may well give the legislation new life and legs in the 80th Texas Legislature.

Sen Bob Deuell, a medical doctor and state Senator from northeast Texas, just issued the following press release on the subject, which I'll reprint here in its entirety:

Deuell Files Needle Exchange Bill

Doctor / Senator Says Program Will Save Lives and Money

AUSTIN -- State Senator Bob Deuell (R-Greenville) today filed Senate Bill 308, relating to disease control programs aimed at reducing the risk of communicable diseases. A key component of the bill would allow local health authorities to set up programs that permit anonymous exchange of used hypodermic needles.

Deuell, a practicing family physician, stated the program will save lives, save money and could actually help get drug abusers into rehabilitation and treatment. Senator Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), a certified pharmacist, has signed on as a joint author.

"I have seen extensive research that show programs like this reduce the spread of hepatitis and HIV, and do not encourage or increase the use of illegal drugs," Deuell said. "On the fiscal side, the cost of treating a single HIV case run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars making this program cost-effective as well."

Deuell also said this initiative may have the added incentive of getting drug users into treatment.

"The local health authorities who administer these programs may also provide drug counseling and treatment," Deuell said. "This might be the only time we can get to these people and give them the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves. One study showed more than 1,000 drug users found their way into treatment through a needle exchange program."

"As a physician and a member of the Senate Finance Committee, I am confident these programs make sense from a medical and a fiscal standpoint," Deuell said. "I firmly believe this represents good, conservative public policy."

Co-sponsoring with Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (one of my personal favorites in the Texas Senate) was an especially astute move. As a prominent Democrat she gives the legislation serious bipartisan support, and as a pharmacist by trade she, like Deuell, can draw on her professional credibility to advocate for the bill.

In each of the last three sessions, Sen. Jon Lindsay (R-Houston) sponsored similar legislation. In 2005 it finally cleared a Republican-dominated committee before receiving majority support on the Senate floor, but couldn't quite muster enough votes to overcome the 2/3 rule, so never passed. With the powerhouse duo of Deuell and Van de Putte pushing the idea on medical and public safety grounds (Lindsay, as a former county judge, was more concerned about rising medical costs to local hospital districts), this should be a somewhat different debate, and a potentially fascinating legislative journey to watch in the coming months.

Congrats to both Deuell and Van de Putte for embracing this important effort. There's no big money lobby pushing needle exchange; the only reason for these senators to take up the mantle is that they want to do the right thing to prevent disease and encourage addicts to enter drug treatment. I applaud them both for it.

UPDATE: Guess what other conservatives like the idea? Our friends at the Lone Star Times. Who'da thunk it? As one supportive LST commenter put it, “'Conservative' should not be synonymous with 'oblivious.'”

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