Portland-based medical provider Outside In faces a serious cut in their revolutionary syringe exchange program, thanks to a drop in federal funding. The ever-rocky annual funding of this 23-year-old program depends on both the federal, county and city support. This year, the program barely sneaked by with a last minute allocation of $65,000 in one-time cash from the mayor's office.
In 1988, the federal government cemented a ban on any federal funding for needle exchanges, seeing it as a contradiction of its zero-tolerance policy for drug use. However, in 2009, President Obama overturned this ban, welcoming support of these statewide programs despite disapproving grumbles. Now, Obama has revoked this decision in legislation that also cut federal funding of low-income abortions in Washington, D.C. "The product of a tough negotiation," according to White House spokesman Adam Abrams.
To understand the local repercussions of this loss, I spoke with Outside In Executive Director Kathy Oliver.
Mercury: What portion of your annual funding relies on federal support?
Oliver: A very small portion, we get a total of $190 thousand from the city and county together and about a little more than $6 thousand from federal funds. The issue is not that it has a huge impact on our funding, but it's a huge step back in public policy.
Mercury: Do you think this cut is in relation to the stigma surrounding syringe programs, or solely a budgetary issue?
Oliver: It definitely feels like a political move. Unfortunately the federal governments no tolerance to drugs policy extends to drug users as well.
Mercury: How do you think our country can break this stigma?
Oliver: It's going to take a lot more education. We need people to understand that needle exchange programs are a bridge to treatment, not just a quick fix.
Mercury: Although the money isn't the main issue, what does this cut mean for the syringe exchange program financially?
Oliver: I think the major impact is not so much that we'll be turning people away, but that local funding is absolutely essential now, not just helpful. The fact that the city money was given to us this current year as one-time only makes me nervous. There needs to be a stable source.
MORE AFTER CUT
Mercury: Do you see the negative national take on syringe exchange in Multnomah County as well?
Oliver:No, it's more a national thing. The county has been a huge supporter, they totally get the public health aspect. And the city too, especially when it comes to public safety. We've been really fortunate. Portland's been great, we just need that support.
Mercury: What's next in securing local funding for the upcoming year?
Oliver: I've scheduled a meeting with the mayor to talk about our budget, hopefully that will set us in the right direction!
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!