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Good Question: Free syringes for drug users, but not for diabetics?

January 14, 2019 09:58 AM

You may have heard in some cities, including Rochester, clinics give out free syringes to drug users. It's a way to combat the spread of illness. But why isn't there a similar program for non-drug users who need syringes to stay alive?

Jim Wedman, from Lyons, has Type 1 diabetes and asked Pat Taney about that.

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He says he pays around $10 per month for the syringes he needs to stay alive.

"How about equality for law-abiding citizens like me?" Wedman asked.

We took Wedman's question to Trillium Health which runs a needle exchange program on Central Avenue in Rochester.

On the surface, it sounds simple. Drug users can walk in, meet with a trained health professional and receive an ID card which will allow them to receive free and clean syringes.

But Julie Ritzler-Shelling, director of the Harm Reduction Program at Trillium Health, says it does much more than that.

"The intention of the program is to prevent the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C, among other illnesses and skin conditions," Ritzler-Shelling said.

The program has been very successful. Ritzler-Shelling says in the early 1990s, HIV infection rates for those who injected was more than 50 percent.

"If you fast forward four to five years later, that rate falls to less than 3 percent and it has hovered there ever since," she said.

Also, the health professionals who meet with users who come into the clinic, establish a trust which can lead people to get the help they need to beat addiction.

"We've linked them to houses, to treatment and they've been taken off the streets," Ritzler-Shelling said.

But back to our question. 

Taney: If I am a diabetic, why am I not given the same access to free syringes?

Ritzler-Shelling: It's not apples to apples here.

There has not been a nationwide epidemic of blood-borne illnesses spread by people who share insulin syringes. 

Ritzler-Shelling also points out those who need insulin versus drug users are treated differently.

"I do think there is a much different stigma associated with injecting heroin as opposed to injecting insulin."

But many argue some diabetics need help too. Syringes aren't exactly expensive, but insulin is.

According to a recent study by Yale University, some diabetics -- a quarter of the 200 surveyed -- use smaller doses than they're prescribed because of the increasing costs of insulin.

So News10NBC wanted to know if New York state, which helps fund needle exchange programs for drug users, would create a similar program for diabetics.

When asked, a spokesperson did not say there are any plans for that but says low-cost insurance does make syringes affordable for those who need it.

"The Medicaid program covers a wide range of diabetic supplies, including syringes. There are no copays for Medicaid members enrolled in Managed Care Plans, and only a $1.00 co-pay for members enrolled in the fee for service program. Providers may not refuse services to members who cannot afford to pay the copayment," said Erin Hammond, a New York State Department of Health spokesperson.

At Trillium Health in Rochester, they are open and willing to try and help everyone in need. 

"If cost is a barrier, we have offered help and assistance to people who are injecting insulin in the past," Ritzler-Shelling said.

She also wants you to keep in mind that without the needle exchange program, we'd have more people getting sick and hospitalized which would increase costs for taxpayers.

Click here for more information on Trillium Health's Syringe Exchange Program. 

If you have a question you'd like Pat to answer, send him an email at GoodQuestion@whec.com.

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Pat Taney

Copyright 2019 - WHEC-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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