Wolf Administration Highlights Need to Expand Access to Life-Saving Harm Reduction Services

October 27, 2021

Urges Lawmakers to Pass Legislation to Help Curb Increase in Overdoses

Today, members of the Wolf Administration joined the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Network (PAHRN), members of the General Assembly, and other advocates and stakeholders in support of expanding access to life-saving harm reduction services for individuals struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD).

“Combatting the overdose crisis has been a top priority of my administration and continues to be,” said. Governor Tom Wolf. “In order to help Pennsylvanians battling substance use disorder access treatment, we must give them every opportunity to stay alive. Harm reduction strategies and programs serve as a critical resource to individuals. My administration urges lawmakers to work with us to pass legislation for harm reduction strategies throughout the commonwealth and ultimately save the lives of our loved ones and neighbors battling substance use disorder.”

Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) Secretary Jen Smith, Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam, and Acting Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson spoke at the event held on the steps of the Capitol to urge passage of legislation to legalize syringe services programs (SSP) across Pennsylvania. Currently, SSPs are authorized by the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“Harm reduction saves lives, improves health, and strengthens families and communities. The Wolf Administration is committed to doing everything in our power to help individuals with substance use disorder, including working with the legislature to enact significant harm reduction legislation such as syringe service programs,” said DDAP Secretary Jen Smith. “Expanding access to harm reduction services like syringe services programs will go a long way in breaking down the barriers associated with stigma many individuals with substance use disorder still face today.”

“More syringe services programs would be a powerful tool in the fight to overcome these health crises,” Acting Health Secretary Beam said. “Expanding syringe services programs will save thousands of lives and prevent untold numbers of HIV and Hepatitis C infections. Other community benefits include increasing public safety, protecting law enforcement and first responders by properly disposing of used syringes and building bridges to drug treatment and other social services to help reduce overdose deaths saving families from the suffering of loss that so many Pennsylvanians have already suffered.”

Harm reduction is a proven public health approach that minimizes the negative consequences of drug use. This approach recognizes that there will always be individuals using and misusing legal and illegal drugs and addresses the conditions of their use. SSPs are proven and effective community-based prevention programs that provide access to and disposal of syringes and other safe equipment. In addition, these programs can provide a range of services to improve overall health and help reduce overdose deaths by providing training on how to recognize, respond to, and reverse an opioid overdose through the use of naloxone.  These programs are separate and distinct from safe injection sites.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, new users of SSPs are five times more likely to enter drug treatment and three times more likely to stop using drugs than individuals who don’t use the programs. Further, the CDC reports that SSPs help serve as a bridge to other health services, including Hepatitis C and HIV testing and treatment, vaccination, medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder, and SUD treatment services.

Senate Bill 926, sponsored by Senators Pat Browne and Anthony Williams, and a forthcoming House Bill from Representatives Jim Struzzi and Ed Gainey, would legalize syringe services programs in Pennsylvania.  

“Syringe Services programs are a valuable tool in assisting people to enter treatment as well as helping to reduce HIV and HCV” said Senator Browne. “In addition, expanding these programs in Pennsylvania will save the commonwealth millions of dollars annually and reduce the burden on our health care system.” 

“As Pennsylvanians continue to deal with the impact of the opioid crisis, syringe exchange programs should be allowed to operate freely across the commonwealth” Senator Williams said. “Support from the General Assembly will enable more programs to operate, improve public safety, and allow drug users to seek treatment options.”

“I support these efforts because they save lives and help anyone who struggles with addiction find people who care and opportunities for recovery​,” said Representative Struzzi. “This is a widespread health issue that can be resolved through these services, which reduce costs and burdens on our overall healthcare system.”

“Syringe Services programs are a great investment in public health that will educate and provide harm reduction supplies that will minimize health risks in our commonwealth​,” said Representative Gainey.  “This is the right direction for Pennsylvania.”

“In addition to syringe services programs being legalized, it is important to legalize fentanyl test strips​, which is another harm reduction service, as we have seen a significant spike in poly-substance and fentanyl-related overdose deaths throughout the commonwealth,” Acting Physician General Dr. Johnson said. “Fentanyl test strips are small strips of paper that can detect the presence of fentanyl in any drug, whether in pill, powder or injectable form. Providing access to fentanyl test strips through public health providers and harm reduction programs also presents an opportunity to engage with people who use drugs and offer them additional services including drug treatment.”

House Bill 1393, sponsored by Representative Struzzi, and Senate Bill 845, sponsored by Senator Tim Kearney, would legalize fentanyl test strips for personal use. 

“The rapid proliferation of fentanyl has been killing thousands of Pennsylvanians and destroying our families for years, and legalizing fentanyl test strips is a common sense change we can make to save lives,” said Senator Kearney. “People cannot recover from addiction if they are dead – it’s time to get with the evidence and fight smart against addiction.”

The Wolf Administration will continue to advocate for specific harm reduction strategies that have clear, evidence-based results in improving public health outcomes. This is a core component of DDAP’s four-year strategic plan.

“By enacting harm reduction policies like syringe service programs, we can meet people who are actively using drugs where they are and address the conditions of drug use,” said Smith. “It is more vital than ever that we close the gaps between mental health and substance use disorder and approach treatment in a more holistic manner.”

DDAP recently announced its continued efforts to combat SUD and overdose deaths, including the rise in stimulant and polysubstance use. Part of this recommitment is the establishment of the Interagency Substance Use Response Team which will bring together key players to resolve policy, media, procedural, and/or funding matters in relation to the addiction crisis across the commonwealth.

To learn more about the Wolf Administration’s efforts in combatting SUD, visit ddap.pa.gov and health.pa.gov.

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