A partisan clash over fees on drugmakers is threatening to derail a proposal to raise $20 million a year to fight opioid addiction in Minnesota, with just days remaining for state lawmakers to reach a deal before Monday’s deadline to adjourn for the year.
Long-sought legislation to raise fees on prescription drug companies and distributors passed the DFL-controlled House and the Republican-majority Senate earlier this spring with broad, bipartisan support. But in recent weeks, negotiations aimed at reconciling differences in the two versions hit an impasse over whether and when the fee increase should end.
The Senate bill would lower the fee if one of several lawsuits against drugmakers results in a large settlement for the state. The House version has no such provision.
The debate came to a head Friday when lawmakers tasked with hammering out a compromise remained deadlocked on the funding to address opioid prevention, treatment and prevention. Republican Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, the lead author of the Senate bill, wants to drop the fee from as much as $305,000 to $5,000 a year in the event of a settlement of $150 million or more for the state. Absent that large sum through the courts, the hike would expire after five years.
“To me, I don’t want it to be a penalizing or shame on you, even though there’s a little shame on you,” Rosen said at the hearing. “Five years just seemed like a reasonable amount of time and a lot could happen over five years.”
DFL lawmakers argue that the cap is far too low. They countered with a proposal for smaller reductions in the fees after the fund hits $700 million or after 10 years have passed. At that time, fees for the largest opiate manufacturers would drop from $500,000 to $250,000 a year.
“We’re at a point across the state that the crisis is getting worse, not better,” said Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, a lead sponsor of the House plan. “We don’t want to sunset fees when we have a lot more we’re going to be doing.”
The impasse has frustrated Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL- Brooklyn Center, a leading proponent of the opioids legislation and one of two legislators who has lost a child to an overdose death.
“Over the last couple of years that [GOP Rep.] Dave Baker and I have worked on this, it’s always been a real collaborative effort and so we both were pretty upset with how adversarial it is,” Eaton said. “We just want to get something done to save peoples’ lives in honor of our children.”
Eaton said she and Baker have offered a compromise that would sunset the higher fees after a settlement of at least $300 million or after five years. Going any lower, she said, runs the risk of undercutting the goal of the effort. Given recent actions in other cases, Eaton believes that a settlement of $150 million or more could be reached as soon as this summer. Baker, whose 25-year-old son died of an overdose, declined to comment through a spokesman.
“We were just trying to get them back on track,” Eaton said. “We want this resolved.”
Similar legislation to address the growing opioid crisis was stymied last year in a broader funding battle between then-Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican leaders in the Legislature.
This year’s conference committee on opioid legislation has not met since last week’s impasse. Now Eaton and other advocates are worried they are running out of time. The decision on when to meet next is now in the hands of Rosen, who also chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Rosen, however, has been in closed-door budget negotiations all week with Gov. Tim Walz and other legislative leaders. A Senate Republican Caucus spokeswoman said both sides are continuing to talk.
Legislative leaders have not provided a timeline for the next hearing, but Olson says a deal could still be reached. She noted that the two sides have already made progress on resolving several other key differences, including how to structure the fees and how much funding to direct to American Indian tribes and child welfare services that have been especially hard hit by the epidemic.
“We’re still willing to talk, we’re still willing to get this right,” Olson said. “I believe we can still get this done. There’s still time.”