Pubdate: Wed, 16 Jun 1999
Source: Staten Island Advance (NY)
Copyright: 1999 Advance Publication Inc.
Author: Jennifer M. Nelson, Advance Albany Bureau


Assemblyman Acknowledges That His Bill Faces An Uphill Fight

ALBANY -- Needle exchange programs would be banned throughout the state
under a bill introduced yesterday by Assemblyman Eric Vitaliano

The measure would force the closure of the 12 programs already in place in
the state as well as derail plans for a proposed needle exchange program
for Staten Island.

The proposed Island program, sponsored by the Staten Island AIDS Task Force
and Staten Island University Hospital, would involve a mobile van traveling
to three sites.

The legislation seeks to strip the state health commissioner's power to
grant a waiver to the existing law in order to allow such programs to exist.

Current public health statutes make it illegal to possess a syringe without
a prescription, creating the necessity for needle-exchange programs to get
a state waiver in order to operate.

Vitaliano submitted the bill only two days before the scheduled end of the
legislative session tomorrow. Because bills have to age three days before
they can be acted upon (unless Gov. George E. Pataki indicates that the
bill should be acted upon immediately), it is unlikely that the measure
will come before the Assembly prior to the close of business.

However, the bill will have a two-year shelf life and will be eligible for
reconsideration during the next session, which starts in January, if it is
not taken up by the end of the year.

Vitaliano admitted that the bill faces an "uphill battle" in the Assembly
and most legislative experts that spoke with the Advance yesterday say they
doubt the measure will even make it out of committee.

Vitaliano said the bill reinforces a position he has held for many years.

"I have been a longtime opponent of needle exchange programs," Vitaliano
said. "New York should not be condoning illegal acts -- and possession of
needles without a prescription is illegal. Giving up on the fight against
drug abuse and enabling abusers to continue their destructive ways is not
the answer."

Even if the bill makes it to a vote, the Island's state delegation isn't
squarely behind their colleague on the issue.

"I think I would have to vote against it," Assemblywoman Elizabeth Connelly
(D-North Shore) said. "I think it's a health issue and should be left to
the decision of the Health Department. If they think the programs are
crucial they should implement them. However, personally I don't like the
idea of mobile van and I've always said that these kinds of things should
be dealt with in a hospital setting like the Methadone Clinic."

Assemblyman Robert Straniere (R-South Shore) was among the first
legislators to sign onto the bill yesterday.

"I think it's bad public policy to have government participate in something
that is clearly illegal -- which is doing drugs," Straniere said. "It's
better not to have government in the business of distributing needles."

Vitaliano said he would send the bill to both Sen. Vincent Gentile (D-East
Shore/Brooklyn) and Sen. John Marchi (R-Staten Island) for Senate sponsorship.

Gentile, who has been an outspoken opponent of the Staten Island proposal
along with Straniere and Vitaliano, declined to comment extensively on the

"Not having spoken to the assemblyman about it yet, I can't say at this
time whether or not I would support the bill," said Gentile, while
emphasizing that he remains opposed to the mobile van plan.

Gerald McLaughlin, spokesman for Marchi, said the senator would "give the
bill serious consideration" should Vitaliano send it over.

The assemblyman said he was spurred to action in part by the state Senate's
confirmation yesterday of former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello, a
pediatrician, as the new Health Commissioner.

"It became obvious with Commissioner Novello's appointment that the Pataki
administration is not philosophically opposed to needle exchange,"
Vitaliano said. "Dr. Novello has even said that she thinks highly of such

At the press conference announcing her appointment a few weeks ago, Dr.
Novello said those needle exchange programs in place already appear to be
working well, although she stressed the importance of community approval.

Diane Arneth, executive director of the Staten Island AIDS Task Force, said
she objects to the politicizing of the issue.

"I think it's [Vitaliano's bill] short-sighted to take what is a public
health issue and good public health practice and throw it into the
political arena," Ms. Arneth said. "Needle exchange programs have
demonstrated to be effective in reducing HIV transmission and in the
absence of any other intervention as well-documented as syringe exchange
is, it would be foolish to have a blanket prohibition against the programs."

Paula Silverstrone, executive director of AIDS Rochester, which administers
a needle exchange program in that community, condemned Vitaliano's bill.

"I think it's an abominable move, a poor public health move and certainly
inhumane," Ms. Silverstrone said. "It guarantees the death of a whole

Vitaliano said he wrote Pataki in March, asking him to consider the strong
opposition to the proposed Island plan. The assemblyman received no
response and charged the governor with trying to "duck this controversial

Michael McKeon, Pataki's press secretary, dismissed Vitaliano's charges.

"It sounds like another cheap attempt to get a little attention for
himself," McKeon said. "He must be starved for it."

In 1988, then-Assemblyman George Pataki proposed an amendment to the state
budget that forbade the state health commissioner from using state tax
dollars for the distribution of syringes "for the use of illegal drugs."
Vitaliano, along with majority of the Democratic members, defeated the
amendment in a party-line vote.

In the 1997 race for Congress, now-Rep. Vito Fossella Jr. (R-Staten Island)
jabbed his Democratic opponent Vitaliano over the vote.

The assemblyman explained that Pataki's budget amendment sought to "remove
funding that wasn't even there" so there was no need to vote for it.

Vitaliano said the comments by McKeon proved Pataki's office was trying to
dodge the issue.

"The governor's office is obviously desperate to distract from the real
issue, which is that the governor has the power to stop needle exchange
programs on Staten Island with the stroke of a pen and he hasn't picked up
that pen yet," the assemblyman said.

Christine Smith, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, said the
agency has shown a strong commitment to making needle exchange programs

"It's important to note that needle exchange can be an effective preventive
tool and play an important part in the overall harm reduction program," Ms.
Smith said. "However, we've maintained that there needs to be strong local
support for these programs and close supervision in order for them to work.
Presented in those circumstances, we would be supportive of such a program."
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