Holyoke Board of Health OKs needle-exchange program

  • The Tapestry Health Needle Exchange site in Holyoke. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 10/14/2016 4:21:30 PM

HOLYOKE — The Holyoke Board of Health has approved the continued operation of a needle-exchange program in that city — which officials have said is a crucial tool in attacking the city’s opioid abuse epidemic.

The board on Thursday voted unanimously to allow the needle-exchange clinic on Main Street to stay open. It is operated by Tapestry Health Inc., of Northampton.

The decision comes after a four-year dispute in which Holyoke city councilors questioned the legality of the clinic, which they contended required “local approval” that they never gave. The vague language became the subject of a legal challenge.

In a complaint brought against Tapestry in 2012, the same year its needle-exchange clinic opened in Holyoke, the council argued that it had never approved these services under the “local approval” aspect of the law.

The city’s Board of Health, however, approved the services before Tapestry opened in 2012, as did Mayor Alex Morse.

The needle-exchange program has had mixed support in Holyoke. In 1996 and 2001, the council voted against the program, and in 2001 voters opposed the idea in a nonbinding ballot question by a vote of 4,549-2,495.

Tapestry Health has also operated a needle-exchange clinic in Northampton since the mid-1990s.

In July, Tapestry severed ties with the Department of Public Health so that it could continue with the needle-exchange program after Hampden Superior Court Judge Mark Mason in March ordered that the group, within 120 days, stop distributing syringes and needles.

In July, around the same time, Gov. Charlie Baker approved clarifying language to legislation that placed local approval for these clinics under local boards of health.

Michael Aleo, a cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, was co-counsel in representing Tapestry in the lawsuit and called the needle-exchange clinic a “vital program.”

“It’s the No. 1 way we know of to combat the opioid epidemic,” Aleo said.

He added that the number of dirty needles it collects is greater than the number of clean needles it distributes.

“We’re so grateful for the courage and knowledge of both Mayor (Alex) Morse and the Board of Health,” said Cheryl Zoll, Tapestry CEO. “It took a lot of effort on their part to (keep the program) alive as we were going through a four-year battle in the court.”

Zoll also said that the move by the Board of Health did not necessarily come as a surprise, considering the board has been a consistent supporter of the program and approved it when it opened in 2012.

“(Although) you don’t want to count your chickens before they hatch … we were hopeful we were going to get the right outcome here,” she said.

In an interview Friday, Morse spoke of the prolonged political battle between the council and Tapestry to keep the needle-exchange program running.

“This is a very important milestone for the city’s needle-exchange program … data and research have shown that time and time again,” Morse said. “This is the culmination of a four-year power struggle initiated by the Holyoke City Council … on good public health policy.”

Last year, the needle-exchange program provided services to more than 2,000 people, according to Tapestry. The group also distributes the opioid-reversal drug naloxone, or Narcan, which was used in 288 overdoses in 2015, according to the agency. So far in 2016, the drug was used in 40 overdose incidents.

Michael Majchrowicz can be reached at mmajchrowicz@gazettenet.com.


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