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Supervised injection sites in NYC have saved lives. But officials won't provide funds

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

In late November, New York became the first city in the United States to allow overdose prevention centers where people can use illegal drugs under staff supervision. The two centers that opened have since intervened in more than 300 potentially fatal overdoses, but Caroline Lewis reports that so far, city and state officials have refused to provide funding.

CAROLINE LEWIS, BYLINE: Some state legislators still aren't convinced that overdose prevention centers are ready to be replicated statewide. The failure of New York's Safer Consumption Services Act this session was a letdown for advocates like Jasmine Budnella with the harm reduction group VOCAL New York.

JASMINE BUDNELLA: The legislature chose politics over saving people's lives.

LEWIS: The Safer Consumption Services Act would have done more than just allow overdose prevention centers to open in other parts of the state. It also would have unlocked new funding for the centers in New York City.

SAM RIVERA: We're doing great work, and it needs to be expanded.

LEWIS: That Sam Rivera, he's executive director of OnPoint NYC, the nonprofit that runs the two overdose prevention centers in Manhattan. Rivera says the goal is to extend their hours to operate around the clock.

RIVERA: But in order to get there, it's really, at this point, all about being able to fund it.

LEWIS: If they were open 24/7, the sites would cost around $2 million a year to operate. But OnPoint NYC isn't getting public dollars to fund the facilities, which are authorized in New York City but still illegal under federal law. Instead, the organization is working to raise money from private donors. Other nonprofits hoping to open similar programs in the city are in the same boat. Thanks to recent legal settlements, New York City is being flooded with money to fight the opioid crisis. It has $89 million coming in this year alone. But City Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan said the city will only put funding towards overdose prevention centers if they receive state or federal support.

ASHWIN VASAN: We're out in front. And we've been pioneers in this space, but we need the rest of government to come and follow us.

LEWIS: It's unclear why the city would act alone to authorize the centers, but not to fund them. It's a question that both the mayor's office and the city health department declined to answer. But President Joe Biden's administration could take action on the issue soon.

RONDA GOLDFEIN: You know, they get that it works. This is an administration that believes in science and evidence.

LEWIS: Ronda Goldfein is the vice president of a Philadelphia organization called Safehouse. The Trump administration sued the nonprofit for trying to open an overdose prevention center in 2019, and Safehouse ultimately lost in a federal appeals court. But the nonprofit has since reopened the case and is in settlement talks with the Department of Justice under President Biden.

GOLDFEIN: We are optimistic that there will ultimately be a resolution that allows us and others to move forward and to provide this public health initiative.

LEWIS: The Biden administration is supposed to respond to the lawsuit later this month, but they've extended the deadline multiple times in the past. In the meantime, other states could act on their own. Rhode Island approved a pilot for supervised consumption sites last year and is working to get communities to agree to host them. California's legislature is debating a bill that would create a similar program. In New York, advocates say the next step is to try to get Governor Kathy Hochul to pass regulations without waiting for the state legislature. Top health officials in her administration support overdose prevention centers, but the governor still won't say where she stands. For NPR News, I'm Caroline Lewis in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.