Facing a rising tide of opioid overdoses and deaths in Massachusetts, the state Department of Public Health is requesting additional funding from the federal government to add more locations where addicts can obtain clean needles.
During testimony on the department's proposed fiscal 2018 budget, Commissioner Monica Bharel said the state now has 14 needle exchange sites and put in a request for more funding in connection with the recently passed 21st Century Cures Act.
Needle exchanges and clean needle distribution sites offer people a means of continuing to feed their addiction without being subjected to the additional risk of infectious diseases spread by dirty needles.
But the locations do not just provide clean needles and other equipment to get high, officials said.
"These are really about engagement and bringing people into treatment, people who might not otherwise seek services or come in for treatment for their addiction or health," Bharel said at the Ways and Means hearing in Roxbury. "Not only do they get the needles, but they also get an education on naloxone, they're offered treatment every time they come in, and they build relationships of trust."
State Rep. Liz Malia of Boston said needle exchanges "are not necessarily popular places" but said she has visited the locations and seen how they can serve as an immediate point of access to treatment for addicts.
"My concern is, and one of the things I hear people talking about and not having any clarity on, is what the solutions are for those folks out there actively using right now," she said.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2006 vetoed a bill that proponents said would have slowed the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C by making clean needles available, without a prescription, to illegal drug users.
Lawmakers overrode the veto, however, with supporters saying it would save lives by reducing the use of dirty needles.