Rep. Houston Gaines and Rep. Katie Dempsey celebrate the passing of HB 217 on Feb. 25.

Rep. Houston Gaines and Rep. Katie Dempsey celebrate the passing of HB 217 on Feb. 25.

A bill to protect employees of Georgia's syringe-exchange programs and authorize the Georgia Department of Public Health to create rules and regulations about harm-reduction programs passed the state House last week.

That’s exactly the kind of legislation the state needs, according to a recent report by the nonprofit Trust For America’s Health.

The report is designed as a tool for lawmakers and summarizes the health and economic benefits of policies that “look beyond healthcare,” president and CEO John Auerbach said. The “Promoting Health and Cost Control in States” report summarizes the health and economic payoffs of expanded syringe-exchange programs, such as the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition.

“We identified solid evidence that the syringe access programs were beneficial for the health of the public,” Auerbach said. “The programs that were most effective were those that overcame barriers to access so they had multiple sites. Sometimes they simply allowed over-the-counter sale of hypodermic needles without a prescription.”

Georgia does not have a state policy in place that allows for widespread syringe access. Under the current law, distribution of syringes or needles without a “legitimate medical purpose,” is prohibited.

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HB 217 is intended to reduce harm by limiting the number of people exposed to infectious diseases, and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens), said people who use needle exchange facilities are more likely to find their way into addiction treatment and recovery.

“It is estimated that it's possible to prevent $76 million in lifetime HIV treatment costs, for example, by investing in these programs,” Auerbach said.