Minnesota state Sen. Chris Eaton has learned to live with the "indescribable heartbreak" of losing a child since her daughter Ariel died of a heroin overdose 12 years ago. More recently, the Brooklyn Center Democrat dealt with the frustration of seeing legislation to curb the crisis stall under intense lobbying from powerful drug companies.
But on Monday, on what would have been her daughter's 35th birthday, Eaton finally experienced a breakthrough — and a sense of relief — as the state Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill sharply increasing fees on makers of addictive prescription drugs to raise $20 million to combat the opioid epidemic.
"My life will never be the same as it was before the day Ariel died," Eaton said in an emotional speech on the Senate floor. "I'm so grateful to everyone who has worked on this bill."
The bipartisan 59-6 vote marked a crucial step toward enacting what supporters say is landmark legislation to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in a public health crisis. A similar measure passed the state House last month, setting up negotiations to work out differences in the two bills before sending a final compromise to Gov. Tim Walz. The first-term Democrat has said he expects to sign the final proposal into law.
"It's time to get this done," said state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, the lead author of the Senate bill. "It's time to get some relief out to this state."
The bill raises the annual licensing fee for opioid manufacturers that sell in the state from $235 to $55,000. Wholesalers and drug companies would pay $5,000 a year. Companies that sell or distribute 2 million or more units of opioids would pay an additional $250,000. The fees would be reassessed if state or county lawsuits against manufacturers result in large settlements.
The money would pay for a comprehensive, statewide response to opioid addiction and deaths in the state, including prevention, treatment and research. A new 18-member council would set priorities and make grant recommendations. In addition to the funding, the bill creates new prescription requirements for certain cases of acute pain and establishes a prescription monitoring program.
The opioid epidemic has hit crisis levels nationwide, as communities struggle to curb addiction and overdose rates. A record 422 Minnesotans died of opioid overdoses in 2017, according to data recently released by the Minnesota Department of Health. Law enforcement, medical providers and agencies providing social services to children whose parents are unable to care from them due to their drug use are also feeling the strain.
While illegal use of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl is driving up overdose rates, supporters say pharmaceutical companies must bear responsibility for their role in spreading the use of prescription painkillers.
Opponents argue that dramatically increased fees could raise costs for consumers. Pharmaceutical companies say they alone are not to blame and that they are already taking action to address opioid addiction.
"Unfortunately, what's being proposed — taxing legitimately prescribed medicines that patients rely on for legitimate medical needs to raise revenue for the state — ignores evidence-based solutions, sets a dangerous precedent and ultimately won't help patients and families," Nick McGee, director of public affairs for the industry trade group PhRMA, told the Star Tribune earlier this year.
Fierce industry lobbying led to the defeat of a similar proposals in the House last session. But a shift in political dynamics at the State Capitol and growing concern about the human costs of the crisis among members of both parties helped propel opioid legislation this year.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said that given the stakes, "doing nothing was not an option."
"Do I think this is a perfect way to do it? No," he said. "But I haven't found a perfect way to do it, which is why I'm going to support this bill."
The deeply personal reach of the crisis as on display Monday. Multiple lawmakers shared stories of friends and constituents who struggled with addiction. After the vote, Eaton hugged Rosen and other lawmakers.
Outside the chamber, families who have lost loved ones waited to greet the senator through smiles and tears. Shelly Elkington wore a pin with a photo of her daughter, who died of a heroin overdose after becoming addicted to painkillers she was prescribed after surgery. She said watching the opioid bills pass both chambers in recent weeks was "more overwhelming than you can imagine."
"Politics today has become so polarized," Elkington said. "It's just really amazing to see our leadership come together and do the right thing."