U.S. House Democrats eye funding for needle exchanges

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday unveiled legislation to lift a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, a shift to try to reduce AIDS virus infections but one that likely will spark a fight.

As part of a $160.7 billion measure to fund the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services for fiscal 2010, which starts October 1, Democrats scrapped the prohibition that has been included in the annual spending bill in previous years.

“Scientific studies have documented that needle exchange programs, when implemented as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy, are an effective public health intervention for reducing AIDS/HIV infections and do not promote drug use,” said Representative David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

President Barack Obama had pledged during the presidential election campaign to lift the ban but when his budget was released earlier this year, activists criticized him for failing to propose cutting the restriction.

His predecessor, George W. Bush, opposed needle exchange programs, which health experts almost universally agree can reduce transmission of the AIDS virus and protect not only drug users but people they might infect.

Republicans are girding for a fight over the ban and lawmakers could try to restore it as the legislation moves through the House during the next two weeks.

“I am very concerned that we would use federal tax dollars to support the drug habits of people who desperately need help,” said Representative Todd Tiahrt, the top Republican on the House Labor/HHS appropriations subcommittee.

Injection drug use contributed 19 percent of the HIV cases according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some cities have instituted their own needle exchange programs.

“Injections of illicit drugs have been estimated to represent approximately one-third of the estimated 2-3 billion injections occurring outside of healthcare settings in the United States each year, second only to insulin injections by persons with diabetes,” the CDC has said.

The legislation includes $31.3 billion for the National Institutes of Health, $5.1 billion in heating aid for low-income households and almost $8 billion for programs aimed at reducing abortions.

Additional reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Bill Trott