Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Will 2009 be the year Texas approves needle exchange? Senate committee to hear syringe access bill today

Maybe this will be the year when Texas legislators finally get the point.

This morning, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee will hear SB 188 by Senators Robert Deuell and Leticia Van de Putte authorizing local governments in Texas to operate needle exchange programs if they choose to do so to prevent the spread of disease, particularly HIV and Hepatitis.

We can be pretty sure the legislation has the votes to pass the Senate: Eight of the nine Health and Human Services committee members voted for the bill on the Senate floor in 2007, when twelve Republicans joined 11 Democrats on a final vote of 23-8 to approve the same legislation. What's more, Sen. Kim Brimer, an opponent of the bill, was replaced by Democrat Wendy Davis, whittling the number of known Senate opponents down to seven: Not enough under the 2/3 rule to block the bill.

Though it's still early in the process, it looks like 2009 may finally be the year for needle exchange to pass in Texas - the only state in the union that doesn't allow their operation. Its chief opponent in the House, Rep. Diane Delisi, retired last year and the Public Health Committee she chaired is now run by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, who was absent for a vote on who voted for a pilot needle exchange program in 2007. Delisi simply refused to allow a vote on the bill in her committee, though by all accounts a majority supported it, just as most members voted for a floor amendment to other legislation authorizing an ill-fated pilot program in San Antonio.

As somebody who's supported this legislation since Rep. Glen Maxey first carried a version of it in the early '90s, I'm enthused to see the idea finally has real momentum. The costs of HIV are too high to do nothing, and needle exchange programs do a good job of reducing both disease and overall cost. Cross your fingers.

UPDATE (1:40 p.m.): Good news! This legislation was heard this afternoon with no opposition soon after the Senate adjourned, then passed out of committee on a prompt, 5-1 vote.

Sen. Deuell cited a study by the Department of State Health Services estimating that needle exchange would prevent 100 new HIV infections per year at an average savings to the state in indigent health care costs of $385,000 per case. Sen. Robert Nichols, whose Republican district neighbors Sen. Deuell's in East Texas, noted that despite a "neutral" fiscal note from the Legislative Budget Board, SB 188 would likely save the state "millions" because of averted indigent health care costs. I was glad to hear that argument made.

A good and positive start, but only the first step of a hard slog. Congrats to the bill sponsors and supporters on a successful hearing.

Related: From Sifting the Haystack, see Harris County officials discuss syringe access legislation. MORE: See STH's coverage of the 3/3 hearing. See also AP's coverage.

See also prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Grits wrote: "...then passed out of committee on a prompt, 5-1 vote."

Who voted against, do you know?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Senator Patrick was not in the room during the vote, it was Senator Joan Huffman who was the no vote in the committee.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, Noelle, my bad. That's unfortunate, she replaced Kyle Janek in the Senate and he was a "yes" vote on this bill. Of course, he was also a medical doctor.