Health Board Endorses AIDS Support Group

by Ryan Bray
Eliza Morrison of the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod speaks before the Orleans board of health on May 2.  RYAN BRAY PHOTO Eliza Morrison of the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod speaks before the Orleans board of health on May 2. RYAN BRAY PHOTO

ORLEANS – As health officials continue to weigh options for abating the ongoing opioid crisis locally, they could have a willing partner in the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod.

The board of health on May 2 voted unanimously to write a letter of support to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for the Provincetown-based nonprofit, which offers services including opioid prevention and education, free NARCAN distribution, treatment and counseling and access to clean syringes to those in need on the Cape.

With the letter, ASGCC can receive additional funding from DPH to further its syringe services programming, which would include additional services to Orleans.

Dan Gates, the nonprofit’s CEO, told the board that in the last year, towns from Provincetown to Orleans have written similar support letters to unlock state funding for syringe services. But ASGCC wants to expand its footprint to better serve the rest of the Cape, he said.

“So we’re trying to create corridors, and with additional funding, it allows us to expand the staffing model,” he said.

Started in 1995, ASGCC operates the state’s longest continuously running syringe services program in Massachusetts, Gates said. The nonprofit also provides treatment and counseling for HIV, Hepatitis C and sexually transmitted diseases, post overdose support services and connections to other non-opoid related health services. ASGCC also provides and stocks Naloxboxes, which provide free access to NARCAN at public buildings.

“We know that secondary distribution of NARCAN is a great way of getting it into communities for people who might need it,” said Eliza Morrison, director of harm reduction for ASGCC.

Additionally, ASGCC operates a “mobile unit” that allows the agency to bring its services directly to towns. Morrison said the unit helps ASGCC reach people in areas where transportation isn’t as readily available. It also offers people an opportunity to access services in a more confidential way.

“We find that in more rural areas, the Outer Cape and the Lower Cape, we can provide great confidential delivery of services to folks in areas where they might not have access to transportation or they experience stigma,” she said. “They might not want to go into the community to address some of their substance use or other things that they’re dealing with, so bringing our services directly to them is a great way for us to access the people that we’re working with.”

But what would services look like if brought to Orleans? Morrison said the needs vary from town to town, and that towns can work with ASGCC to help the agency target and address their specific community needs.

While the board gave its support to the nonprofit, Gates noted that the outlook for state funding for syringe services for fiscal 2025 looks grim. He said the state is looking to cut about $3 million out of an HIV support line item in the public health budget.

“A lot of people don’t know that harm reduction lives under that HIV line item,” he said.

But the town’s letter of support could save ASGCC “months” in terms of being able to expand its syringe services when funding for it again becomes available, Gates said. He said he’s hopeful the funding will return in fiscal 2026.

“The importance of a vote of support is still paramount, because the situation will change eventually,” he said, noting that as much as $25,000 in state funds could be made available to Orleans for programming. “If we have this in the system, as soon as it changes…[DPH] can release additional funds which allows us to bring services at no cost to the town.”

More immediately, the town has abatement funding available through a federal settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors that will bring more than $8 million to Cape Cod. The $26 billion settlement was reached in 2022 with companies including Johnson & Johnson, Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen.

Alex Fitch, the town’s health agent, said over time, approximately $158,000 in abatement money will come to Orleans through 2038. The town currently has $47,000 of abatement funding available, she said.

On May 16, a public hearing will be held to solicit input on how the funding should be used and to develop strategies on how to use it.

“We could also make sure to invite the police chief and fire chief to that public meeting to hear their perspective, which I think would be very helpful,” she said. Representatives from the town’s human services committee will also be invited to attend the hearing.

Fitch said the board would then develop an application form for people and organizations to submit requests for funding, which would then be considered by the board on a case-by-case basis.

The board had discussed sharing its funding with other towns to allow for more regional services, but Fitch said other communities ultimately saw more value in keeping their funding. But John Kanaga of the health board advocated for at least a portion of the town’s abatement money to be used to fund a regional entity.

“Everyone has their own fire department. Everyone has their own police department,” he said. “But I think we could maybe serve Orleans residents better by having some of it go to a cross-region service.”

Gates noted that there are still other lawsuits to come that could unlock more abatement money for Orleans and other towns on the Cape.

“Big settlements,” he said.

Depending on what progress is made at the May 16 hearing, Fitch said the board could start taking applications by its next meeting in June.

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