State Politics

Miami doctor presses lawmakers for needle exchange program, but faces long odds

PERSISTENCE: Hansel Tookes, a resident in internal medicine at Jackson Hospital, is determined to see state lawmakers approve a needle exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade County to lower the high number of infection among intravenous drug users.
PERSISTENCE: Hansel Tookes, a resident in internal medicine at Jackson Hospital, is determined to see state lawmakers approve a needle exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade County to lower the high number of infection among intravenous drug users.

Nearly three years have passed since Hansel Tookes’ first trip to Tallahassee.

Armed with research he had conducted as a student at the University of Miami’s medical school, Tookes hoped to convince state lawmakers on the need for a needle exchange pilot program in Miami-Dade County.

But the Florida Legislature rejected his proposal in 2013, and said no again the following year.

Tookes is now a resident in internal medicine at Jackson Hospital. And he’s more determined than ever to see the bill become law.

“We have seen the outbreak of a heroin epidemic in Miami,” he said. “We are seeing more and more patients hospitalized for infections directly related to use of dirty needles: heart infections, sepsis, abscesses. These infections are all preventable.”

He faces long odds.

State law prohibits programs that let drug users exchange used needles for clean needles. And many members of the Republican-dominated Legislature oppose such programs on moral grounds.

Florida isn’t the only state having the debate.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican who opposes needle exchanges, signed an executive order last month allowing clean needles to be distributed in one particular county with a high rate of HIV infections. And a bill allowing local health departments to establish needle exchanges was signed into law in Kentucky.

Tookes has been studying the issue since 2010, when he and several classmates spent months interviewing intravenous drug users in Miami.

The interviewees confessed to discarding about 95 percent of their dirty needles in the city streets. In San Francisco, a city with a needle exchange program, the figure was 13 percent.

Tookes and his classmates launched a grassroots effort to bring a similar concept to Miami.

The proposal stalled in both the House and Senate in 2013. It found widespread support in 2014, but died on the last night of session because the Senate ran out of time to approve it.

At first, it seemed 2015 would be different.

A panel approved the the House version of the bill (HB 475) on the first day of sesion. But the proposal hit a road block when Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, wouldn’t schedule the bill for a hearing.

Bileca said he had too many other bills to consider. He also said the information contained in the needle exchange proposal “didn’t provide a compelling need for it.”

His committee is no longer meeting, he said this week.

The bill (SB 1040) could still move through the Senate, where it has already won the support of one committee.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, the Miami Gardens Democrat sponsoring the proposal, said he doesn’t anticipate any problems in the next two committee stops. Both panels are chaired by lawmakers from Miami-Dade County.

Brayon says the bill deserves additional consideration now that Florida risks losing more than $1 billion in federal funding for hospitals that treat uninsured patients.

“This is one of those bills that will help stop us from spending dollars we don't have to spend, especially on emergency room care,” he said.

Tookes, who works in inpatient services and the HIV clinic, pointed out that Miami has the highest rate of diagnosed HIV infections in the country.

“If we do not act now, countless Floridians will die a slow and expensive death with the bill footed by Florida's taxpayers,” he said.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments