Answering “no” to this question ought to be one of the biggest political risks Minnesota legislators face when they return home at session’s end: Did you support legislation to require drug manufacturers and distributors to help pay for the treatment, prevention and law enforcement costs piling up as the opioid epidemic rages across the state?
With the entire state House up for election this fall, one would expect members of this chamber especially to be clamoring for financial accountability from firms profiting off the pain of Minnesota families and communities. But so far, an important measure that would require drug industry contributions — the so-called “penny-a-pill” tax on these painkillers — has failed to find a critical level of support in either the House or the Senate. Without a change in course, it will fall to taxpayers to shoulder the costs of escalating efforts against this public health crisis. That’s not fair, and it needs to change.
Fortunately, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, has come up with a smart alternative that gets around a dubious sticking point. During an election year, there’s considerable leeriness about voting for a tax — a fear that anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist has helped fan by publicly opposing Minnesota’s penny-a-pill initiative.
Rosen merits praise for her long dedication to helping those struggling with substance abuse. She has previously worked on legislative efforts to stem methamphetamine addiction in the state. On Tuesday, her experienced leadership was on full display as she introduced a different mechanism for requiring financial contributions from the drug industry.
Instead of the penny-a-pill tax, Rosen is now advocating that manufacturers and wholesalers pay a registration fee, with the proceeds going to offset the costs of medical care, social services and law enforcement efforts linked to the opioid epidemic. The fee in her bill would raise a sum similar to the penny-a-pill tax — $20 million a year.
Rosen tabled the tax phobia by dubbing the fee a “cost of doing business in Minnesota” as she shepherded the new approach through the Senate Finance Committee she chairs. A similar approach has been passed in New York, with the higher amount raised there — $100 million — reflecting the state’s larger population.
Watching Rosen’s advocacy ought to be required viewing for all freshman lawmakers. On Tuesday, she came prepared with a video showing Minnesota families who have lost a loved one to a drug overdose. She had an expert from the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy at her side to quickly answer technical questions. She also spoke powerfully about the need for financial accountability. “I just feel really adamant against using general fund dollars to pay for someone else’s mistakes,’’ Rosen said, alluding to opioid manufacturers’ misleading marketing about the drugs’ risk.
The new funding measure has bipartisan support, as the unanimous Finance Committee vote showed. Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, a committee member, has been a powerful advocate for drug industry accountability and voted for it. In the House, Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, has worked tirelessly to ramp up the fight against opioid addiction. Eaton and Baker merit praise for sharing their heartbreak — both have lost children to overdoses — so other Minnesota parents won’t suffer.
The registration-fee approach warrants swift passage in the Senate. While House legislation currently lacks a similar funding mechanism, legislative revisions or conference-committee dealmaking can make it a reality. Lawmakers can expect support from Gov. Mark Dayton. He has championed the penny-a-pill tax but a spokesman said that Rosen’s approach is a fine alternative.
A recent national study estimated that the opioid epidemic costs the country $115 billion a year. The $20 million ask from Minnesota is an eminently reasonable contribution from industry to strengthen state solutions.