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.
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
“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
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
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
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.
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.”