Good policy bills often go to undeserved early graves in the chaos at any legislative session’s end. Even knowing that, it still hurts to contemplate losing the compassionate “opioid stewardship” legislation that a dogged cadre of Republican and DFL legislators fought to pass in response to a heartbreaking public health crisis: the painkiller addiction epidemic wreaking havoc in communities across the country.
The measure, which would tap the drug industry for $20 million a year for treatment and prevention, remains alive. But teamwork is required to save it as disappointing differences have erupted between key legislators working to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the legislation. Collaboration will be a heavy lift with just days left in the session and frayed nerves and exhaustion setting in.
Up to this point, the legislation has been a bright spot in an era marked by bitter partisanship. Two courageous legislators — Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, and Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar — joined forces to prevent other families from losing children to this scourge. Eaton lost a daughter to an overdose, and Baker lost a son.
Both pushed their colleagues for a remedy and reasonably sought dollars from the pharmaceutical firms profiting from the sale of these drugs. Bills passed the Senate and House earlier this year. Reconciling them was never going to be easy because each uses a different mechanism to raise the $20 million. But the differences generating concerns about the legislation’s fate lie elsewhere. Republicans and Democrats now disagree on when to “sunset” the increased fees from drugmakers and whether their contributions should decline if the state recoups settlement dollars in ongoing litigation with drugmakers.
The divide must be bridged. The legislation reflects years of hard work by Baker, Eaton and other advocates. Families who have lost loved ones have repeatedly driven from across the state to share their pain with lawmakers. Legislation also needs to pass this year to ensure that legal settlement dollars will be dedicated to opioid prevention and treatment instead of added to the state’s general fund, according to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison.
In the meantime, the opioid addiction epidemic rages on, with deaths in Minnesota increasing 7% from 2016 to 2017. The opioid stewardship legislation has reassured Minnesotans that elected officials can set aside differences and work for the common good. To see it die at this late point would undermine public health and the public’s confidence in lawmakers. Caring, conscientious leaders won’t let this happen.