Petition requests changes to Upshur needle program

BUCKHANNON — Concerned community members approached the Upshur County Commission Thursday morning with requests to suspend the recently implemented needle program until guidelines and requirements are in place — and a petition with roughly 500 signatures.

In April the Buckhannon-Upshur Health Department, in partnership with Milan Puskar Health Right, implemented a harm reduction program in which syringes, Naxalone, equipment for injection, proper disposal containers, wound treatment, counseling and information on drug treatment programs are offered to clients the second Thursday of every month.

Milan Puskar Health Right and the health department has stressed that the program is not to encourage drug use, but rather to protect intravenous drug users from Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV and other medical concerns that can occur from untreated wounds.

During Thursday’s county commission meeting, several Upshur County residents urged commissioners to somehow have the partnership place requirements and guidelines into the program.

In a crowded room of concerned residents, Pastor Ed McDaniels also presented the commission with a petition of roughly 500 signatures pleading for restrictions on the program.

“We used to have a program that said ‘Just say no,'” said McDaniels. “Now it seems like we’ve got a program that says ‘Well, lets just say yes.”

If the program is permanently implemented, the community members at the meeting insisted that it should be a one-for-one needle exchange.

“It should be … needle-exchange operated. You bring in one, you get one. You bring in 50, you get 50,” McDaniels said. “If we don’t do it that way we’re going to go around picking up needles.”

Sue McKisic, nurse director for the Buckhannon-Upshur Health Department, originally told The Inter-Mountain in April that the harm reduction program was a needle exchange program; however, during the community forum on June 19, Milan Puskar advised that clients are distributed the amount of syringes they need for a month.

Another concern mentioned during the county commission meeting was that the harm reduction program does not require identification or any age requirement.

“If you can catch a 16-year-old just starting, you’ve got a chance to turn them away from that,” said McDaniels. “That bothers me.”

However, during the community forum on June 19, Caitlin Sussman with Milan Puskar said, “I’m a social worker. I’m a mandatory reporter, so if I see someone who’s under the age of 18 who doesn’t have their basic needs being met and lives in a household that allows them to inject drugs, I’m required to call CPS.”

McDaniels said Thursday he felt it should be required that clients present a valid ID. McDaniels, along with others, said the program also should only be offered to Upshur County residents.

“The people from other counties should not be coming here, which there is no reason that they wouldn’t because there is no valid Id,” he said. “No one knows where you’re from.”

McDaniels said he thinks that regular blood testing should be required for all clients, as well as mandatory counseling.

“If mandatory counseling is there it would give them the chance to find rehabilitation and get rehab, then we can make some things possible,” he said. “I think it would be helpful.”

Upshur County resident Kevin Hoover said he thought it would be wise to have the health department develop a reporting and tracking mechanism in order to find needles that may appear on sidewalks and playgrounds.

“As they are handing out these needles there is going to be more and more (needles),” he said.

Hoover said those struggling with addiction need more education and counseling rather than needles.

“They need more hope, not more needles. They need more help, not more needles,” he said.

Hoover added, “If you truly want to help solve the drug problem, you’ll make treatment more available, not drug kits.”

Buckhannon City Council members Mary Albaugh, Dave Thomas and Robbie Skinner were also present during Thursday’s commission meeting.

Thomas said he thought the concerned citizens should address the health board during it’s next meeting, which is scheduled for July 12.

“What we need to do is get everybody in this room and other people to go to the health board meeting and ask them to suspend this program,” said Thomas.

He continued, “I would like to say personally, not as a city councilman, but as an individual, saying ‘Where is your transparency? Where is the accountability? Where’s the thought process and why don’t you involve the community?”

Susan Foster asked what are the responsibilities of the commission when it comes to the health department’s operations.

“I’ve read through the code … I can’t decipher exactly what our authority is over (the health board),” said Commissioner Terry Cutright, adding the county furnishes the health department and pays the utility bills.

Commission President Sam Nolte advised that the commission appoints the health board; however, the board makes their own decisions internally.

“I don’t even know if we have the authority to stop this program, but we’re going to find out,” said Cutright.

Cutright said his recommendation would be to hire an attorney to review the bylaws between the county and the health department.

“We’ll get some clarification legally,” Nolte said, agreeing with Cutright.