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Committee Advances Bill Authorizing Department of Health to Approve, Oversee Establishment of Harm Reduction Programs

In recognition of the substance abuse and overdose crisis in New Jersey, Assembly Democrats Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Annette Quijano and Anthony Verrelli sponsor legislation aiming to make the establishment and operation of harm reduction programs easier. The bill was advanced by the Assembly Health Committee on Monday.

To help prevent most medical emergencies caused by the unsupervised injection of illicit drugs, harm reduction programs seek to prevent potential health issues by providing sterile syringes and other resources to individuals who use intravenous drugs. Several of these programs – also known as Syringe Access Programs – already exist in high-risk areas throughout New Jersey.

Research has shown time and again that harm reduction measures work,” said Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “People struggling with addiction will often find a way to obtain and use drugs regardless of the potential risks. Our state loses thousands of residents each year to overdoses alone. If we want to help our fellow community members avoid these tragic outcomes, we must offer the resources and safer alternatives they need.”

The measure aims to streamline and standardize the approval and operation of harm reduction programs throughout the state by shifting their responsibility from municipalities to the Department of Health (DOH).

Under the bill (A-4847/S-3009), entities such as non-profits and qualifying health care providers that wish to establish a program would submit a registration form to the Commissioner of Health for consideration. The Commissioner would approve the proposed program if it meets applicable requirements regarding staff training, infection control measures, needle injury precautions/protocols, and more.

“Harm reduction sites provide critical services to local residents while honoring the dignity of those living with a substance use disorder,” said Assemblywoman Quijano (D-Union). “These programs are staffed by professionals who can help limit the risks of intravenous drug use, such as HIV or hepatitis infections and overdoses, while providing a safe, stigma-free environment in which to receive care. This legislation will help make it easier for these programs to be approved and maintained going forward.”

The decision to authorize or terminate a harm reduction program would rest with the DOH. The department would collaborate with a municipality in which a program is planned and the Commissioner of Health would be required to maintain open communication with the municipality’s mayor and council to explain plans for and benefits of the program both prior to, during and after its establishment.

The DOH must also facilitate the linkage of these programs to other critical services, such as medication-assisted treatment services, mental health services, career counseling programs, and housing assistance programs to try to help address the root causes of many substance use disorders.

“Both compassion and logic are at the heart of harm reduction programs,” said Assemblyman Verrelli (D-Hunterdon, Mercer). “With countless New Jerseyans struggling with addiction every day throughout our state, we cannot turn a blind eye to their needs. Making it easier for qualified entities to start – and continue – providing clean needles, overdose antidotes, and resources that can connect individuals with other support services is how we save lives.”

The legislation also appropriates $5 million to the DOH to support harm reduction services and $10 million to the Department of Human Services for inpatient and outpatient substance use disorder treatment programs.