Workers at Anchorage's only needle exchange program say they're getting so much business, they could run out of cash to operate the program before the end of the year. The Alaska AIDS Assistance Association has run the exchange program since 2007, but HIV Prevention Coordinator Matt Allen said what used to be a small part of the nonprofit's services has grown to the point of overshadowing some of their other programs like HIV testing and case management services for people with HIV/AIDS.
"We've had a large number of new participants each year that just keeps growing," said Allen.
Allen said the program distributed over 600,000 syringes this past fiscal year. And 40 percent of the people who came to the exchange reported being first-time customers. The numbers have led the nonprofit to make some "tough decisions," according to Allen. Like asking users for donations and cutting back hours of the exchange program from 40 a week down to 17.
"That's what we did to battle some of the issues we were having as an agency," said Allen.
However, Allen said there's a real concern that funding, which comes from private donations and foundations, may not last through the end of the year. He may not be the only one who's concerned. The State Health Department isn't involved with the Exchange program, but State HIV Program Manager Susan Jones said, in general, syringe exchange programs can have many benefits, like reducing rates of HIV and hepatitis C, getting dirty needles off the street and helping funnel people into the services they need. But despite a recent influx of federal dollars into the state to fight opioid addiction, Jones said it's illegal to use that money to buy syringes.
"I think it’s unfortunate we can't use federal funds to do that so our hands are tied in some of the support we can give them," said Jones. "But the concept of a syringe exchange program is a very important concept, especially now in Alaska with the opioid epidemic."
Back at the exchange, Allen said he hopes others agree. He says it's likely they'll be asking the public for donations to keep the program running in the near future.