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Fee on opioid makers to fund addiction fight gains ground at Minnesota Capitol

Minnesota Capitol

ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers appear ready to fast-track legislation that would raise revenue to fight the opioid epidemic by creating new fees for drug manufacturers and distributors.

“Our folks know that every day that we don’t act is a day a life could be lost,” said Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, whose community is one of many ravaged by opioid addiction.

Olson and Rep. Dave Baker, R-Wilmar, who lost his son Dan to an overdose, are lead sponsors of what supporters call an opioid stewardship bill. Similar legislation was debated last year, but failed to become law.

The proposal would raise $20 million annually, $12 million from drug makers and $8 million from distributors, which would be used for opioid addiction treatment and prevention efforts. An advisory council would be in charge of how the money is spent, following guidelines in the legislation.

Previous legislative proposals focused on a penny-per-pill fee on opioids, but some Republicans rejected that idea, saying it was essentially a new tax on legitimate use of the drugs.

A push to advance bill

The DFL-led House health and human services committee planned to advance the bill Wednesday evening, Jan. 30, after a hearing filled with testimony from supporters and critics. A similar proposal received bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled Senate last year, but has not been reintroduced this so far session.

Shelly Elkington, whose daughter Casey Jo died after a battle with opioid addiction, encouraged lawmakers to move the legislation forward so more resources will be available to battle addiction.

“I visit my daughter in the cemetery,” Elkington said. “There are mothers in our state right now that can be spared having to do that. There are mothers in the state that can see their daughters live.”

A look at the numbers

More than 400 Minnesotans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health. Drug overdose deaths have climbed dramatically here and across the nation in recent years as opioid addiction rose to epidemic proportions.

More than 3 million opioid prescriptions were written to Minnesota patients in 2017, a decline from the year before, according to state data. But that’s still enough for more than half the state population to have access to the powerful painkillers.

Arguments for the bill

Chris Johnson, an emergency medicine doctor who works with the Steve Rummler Hope Network, which works to fight addiction and chronic pain, told lawmakers that the medical industry bore responsibility for the opioid crisis.

“My profession failed you,” Johnson told lawmakers. “This crisis was not an accident. This was engineered.”

Johnson echoed the allegations many have made against pharmaceutical companies and doctors, that opioids were marketed as a safe way to treat pain and were overprescribed to patients who didn’t know the risks.

Those claims are at the center of lawsuits against drug makers and distributors brought by government officials across Minnesota and the rest of the nation. Pharmaceutical companies and distributors have denied those allegations.

Balking at bill's costs

Drug makers and distributors spoke in favor of helping to curb the tide of opioid addiction Wednesday, but balked at the price their industry may have to pay under the proposed legislation.

Matt Di Loreto, of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, called the new fee an “oversimplified and flawed approach” that would lead to higher costs and limited access for the many legitimate uses of opioid painkillers.

Judy Cook, a lobbyist for the Association for Accessible Medicines, which represents generic drug makers, said much of the financial burden would fall on companies that had no role in the alleged deceptive marketing that drove the epidemic. They want to have a “fair role” in addressing the crisis.

“Generic manufacturers did not create opioids, did not market them, did not pay physicians — are highly regulated and only manufacture what the (Drug Enforcement Agency) allows,” Cook said.

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