The needle exchange program has support from local clinics and pharmacies though the realization of the program seems distant considering the funding, community support and other potential issues.

An issue that arose at the most recent Ramsey County Commission meeting Tuesday was the suggestion by Allen McKay, administrator of the Lake Region District Health Unit, to start a needle exchange program in Devils Lake.

McKay pointed to a similar program currently being orchestrated in Grand Forks, though he detailed several potential problems with the plan, which he called “controversial.”

“A lot of people have feelings about that, thinking that we’re making it easier for them (to use drugs),” McKay said.

The needle exchange program discussion was sparked by information provided by commissioner Lucas Wakefield, who relayed that nearly 70 percent of those who visit the health unit are positive for some form of STD. According to both him and McKay, hepatitis C has become a grave concern for those in local healthcare who are tasked to treat them.

“Hep(atitis) C is growing insanely fast, and a primary cause of that is needle sharing,” McKay said. “Those kinds of risky behaviors bring this about.”

Because of the sensitive nature of the issue, McKay said that the health unit is moving slowly and gathering support from entities around the region.

Law enforcement is a key component of any needle exchange program, as those who may benefit from access to safe needles often worry that seeking them out may lead to legal trouble.

McKay told the commission that local law enforcement has, so far, been supportive.

“These people coming to exchange needles won’t be arrested,” he said. “You have to have that in place.”

Another major hurdle is funding. McKay told the commission that neither state nor federal money would be available for the program, and he reported that the health unit and other entities in the community are short on funding ideas.

“The problem is coming up with the funding,” McKay said. “So far the (options) we’ve explored have not gone anywhere.”

McKay is hoping to crowdsource funding ideas, banking on those in the community to help devise a plan to raise money for the controversial program. The health unit is reportedly waiting on word from the federal government concerning a $230,000 grant for operations, so next year’s budget appears to be somewhat up in the air even without the added cost of a needle exchange program.

The need is urgent, according to McKay, because the cost of treating hepatitis C far outweighs the projected cost of the program.

“It’s much less expensive to have a needle exchange program than care for people once they get hepatitis C,” he said. “It is curable, but it’s (about) $10,000 for a treatment, and not all insurance covers it because it’s still considered experimental (by) some of the insurance companies.

“It isn’t in the medical field, but not all insurance companies jump on that bandwagon right away.”

Wakefield also revealed that, recently, an individual in the community was diagnosed with HIV, also widely spread by dirty needles.

The nascent needle exchange program has support from local clinics and pharmacies, according to McKay, though the realization of the program seems distant considering the funding, community support and other potential issues.

However, Wakefield pointed out that while any such program is likely to raise eyebrows in the community, the dual issues of drug abuse and STDs could be mitigated by a needle exchange.

“I understand that it can kind of be a live wire issue, but I think the critical factor is (whether or not) you want to add a public health crisis to a drug abuse problem,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me to do nothing and let one add to the other.”