House OKs Needle Exchange Pilot Program to Prevent Infectious Diseases
By Joey Berlin



A disease-control pilot program bill allowing for syringe and needle exchange – which the Texas Medical Association has supported for several legislative sessions – has passed the Texas House of Representatives.

House Bill 3233 by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) would allow several major Texas counties and their hospital districts – including Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, and Travis – to establish pilot programs to prevent the spread of infectious, communicable diseases, including HIV and hepatitis B and C. The house voted it out on Wednesday 81-57.

Central to the bill is its allowance of the anonymous exchange of used hypodermic needles and syringes for new ones. Syringes are considered illegal drug paraphernalia under Texas law, but the bill would decriminalize them when used as part of a permissible pilot program.

As TMA explained in written comments to the House County Affairs Committee in mid-April, similar programs have been embraced all over the U.S. Only 11 states other than Texas disallow programs like the one HB 3233 would create.

The Texas Legislature has done much in recent years to try to curb opioid use, which it recognizes as a public health epidemic. And yet during the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid overdoses have skyrocketed, as have emergency department visits associated with opioid use,” TMA wrote to the committee. “According to the Texas Hospital Association, even before the pandemic, the opioid crisis cost Texas $20 billion annually. The incidence of HIV and hepatitis C has also been on the rise. Texas, in short, is not doing enough. Syringe exchange programs have been shown to reduce overdose hospital admissions and play a critical role in preventing HIV and hepatitis C transmission, reducing health care costs statewide.”

The syringe-exchange bill was originally filed in 2015 by the late Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon and was coauthored by then-Rep. John Zerwas, MD.

Extension of public health orders

Senate Bill 967 by Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), which passed the Senate on April 9, aims to put a finite amount of time on health authorities’ public health orders. TMA weighed in Wednesday with considerations for the House Public Health Committee as it discussed the bill.

Under SB 967, a public health order issued by a health authority would last just seven days, expiring on the eighth day after it’s issued unless a “governing body of a municipality or the commissioners court of a county that appointed the health authority by majority vote” extends the order. TMA is recommending instead that a local elected official, like a county judge, be the one allowed to extend the order.

TMA has concerns about the current version of the bill possibly limiting “the ability of local authorities to respond effectively to epidemics and disease within their own communities,” the association said in written comments. “The use of public health orders is for when there is a dire need to protect the public’s health. Often their use was necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic to limit the continued spread of the coronavirus, and limiting the spread of the virus meant fewer severely sick and dying patients rushing to hospitals and overwhelming our state’s health care system,” TMA’s letter said. “We want to be careful to not render our public health authorities powerless in scenarios where public health orders are necessary to prevent a high mortality outbreak due to a severe, high-consequence, and highly contagious disease.”

Convening a local governing body to extend an order, TMA said, “may require more time, logistical planning, public notice alerts, and other requirements and collaborations with a number of individuals that may hinder a quick enough response to the emergency at hand. Also, as a reminder, all health authorities are appointed officials within this state. Local governing bodies already have the authority to intervene at times they feel are appropriate through the immediate removal of such appointed officials.”

Just one First Tuesdays left  

Only five days remain until the final First Tuesdays at the Capitol on May 4. By then, only 27 days will remain in this session. Register for free today to get an update from TMA’s lobby team on what issues and bills are still in play, and what you can do to help in the final stretch before the legislature adjourns.

TMA’s Grassroots Action Center is your go-to in May

The last few weeks of the legislative session are critical to the success of TMA’s advocacy efforts this year.

TMA’s Grassroots Action Center is where you will find the current status of priority bills TMA is tracking, April’s First Tuesdays at the Capitol presentation, and Action Alerts – urgent, time-sensitive requests for you to share your concerns and support with legislators. Lawmakers are more likely to read and remember a personalized story or anecdote about how the proposed legislation will affect you, your patients, and your practice – so be sure to include one when you respond to an Action Alert.

You can do all this from the convenience of the VoterVoice app on your phone.

The time is now to add your voice in support of medicine’s advocacy efforts. Your participation is a vital component of our legislative success. Become an advocate for the House of Medicine today.

Last Updated On

April 28, 2021

Originally Published On

April 28, 2021

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Joey Berlin

Associate Editor

(512) 370-1393

Joey Berlin is associate editor of Texas Medicine. His previous work includes stints as a reporter and editor for various newspapers and publishing companies, and he’s covered everything from hard news to sports to workers’ compensation. Joey grew up in the Kansas City area and attended the University of Kansas. He lives in Austin.

More stories by Joey Berlin