At Epicenter of HIV's Growth, Florida Legalizes Needle Exchanges

by | March 24, 2016

By Michael Auslen

Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday signed into law a needle exchange program to combat HIV in Miami-Dade County and new requirements that rape kits be tested within 120 days.

The needle exchange bill allows the University of Miami to distribute free, clean needles and syringes in exchange for used ones. Its goal is to reach drug users, who are particularly susceptible to contracting HIV and AIDS.

"The issue we have of addiction and AIDS is not only a Miami-Dade issue, it's a Florida issue," Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said when the Legislature voted to create the program. "This is just the beginning."

Under the law, taxpayer money isn't allowed to fund the program, which will include a mobile unit to bring the exchange to people without transportation.

Other states have turned to needle exchanges to combat infection crises, and Scott's bill signing comes as Florida leads the nation for new HIV infections. South Florida is the epicenter of the disease's growth, but Braynon and others hope to see the program expand beyond Miami-Dade County.

It's taken four years to pass the pilot program, but a provision requiring the exchange to provide information about addiction and substance abuse treatment brought conservatives, as well as the Florida Department of Health, on board.

Scott also signed a law intended to prevent future backlogs of untested rape kits in the wake of Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports that 13,000 kits lie unprocessed.

"This legislation will provide thousands of women with a renewed sense of safety and closure as they heal from the horrific crime of rape," Scott said in a written statement.

State crime labs will now be required to test kits within 120 days of receiving them.

To start addressing the existing backlog, the state budget signed by the governor last week includes $10.7 million for the crime labs.

Here are the bills Scott signed into law Wednesday:

-- Medical Assistant Certification: This bill repeals a voluntary certification for medical assistants. (SB 238)

-- An Infectious Disease Elimination Pilot Program: This bill establishes a pilot program at the University of Miami to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases. (SB 242)

-- Vision Care Plans: This bill relates to health insurance requirements for ophthalmologists and optometrists. (SB 340)

-- Physical Therapy: This bill relates to the licensure of physical therapists. (SB 450)

-- Adoption: This bill allows judges to make adoption decisions based on the best interest of the child and makes other changes to adoption procedures. (SB 590)

-- Rape Kits: This bill requires rape kits to be tested within a specified time frame. (SB 636)

-- Foster Families: This bill designates the second week of February as "Foster Family Appreciation Week." (SB 860)

-- Residential Facilities: This bill clarifies distance requirements for community residential homes. (SB 1174)

-- A Review Under the Open Government Sunset Review: This bill reenacts an existing public records exemption relating to the Florida Health Choices Program. (SB 7020)

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