There’s a fascinating rematch going on at the Minnesota Capitol this year between two influential groups — the powerful pharmaceutical lobby and a determined group of legislators who want the industry to help foot the bill to combat the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Drug companies won the first round in 2018, fending off a registration fee that would have raised about $20 million a year to help fund treatment and prevention. Letting them avoid responsibility again for the havoc their profitable products have wreaked on communities would be a travesty. In 2016, nearly 400 Minnesotans died after overdosing on these drugs.
It is now up to the state Senate to hold drug companies accountable, which means the odds are now thankfully in grieving families’ and taxpayers’ favor. This week, legislation authored by the formidable Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, is expected to head to a floor vote in the upper chamber. Rosen is confident that the bill will pass, and she has reason to be. Last year, she wrestled a bill tapping drugmakers and distributors for about $20 million a year through the Republican-controlled Senate. The vote: 60-6.
That vote stood in contrast to the fate of a companion bill in House. Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who lost a son to an opioid overdose, passionately advocated for additional treatment and prevention dollars. He also said it’s only fair to ask drug companies to help taxpayers and consumers shoulder these costs. But the bill never made it to the floor in the Republican-controlled chamber.
This year, the DFL-controlled House already passed an opioid registration fee bill that would raise $20 million a year. That happened Monday, with Baker and Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, providing strong leadership throughout a contentious debate. There is bipartisan agreement that additional funds are needed. But the House debate made clear that some legislators are reluctant to ask the drug industry to do its part.
Those objections do not stand up well to scrutiny — a caveat to those planning to make similar arguments in the Senate. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt made the case that additional dollars should come from the state general fund. Daudt advocated for a measure to provide $20 million a year over the next two years. But this is not a long-term source of money. It also sidesteps the fairness issue.
Another problematic argument made during the House debate: Why tap generic manufacturers for dollars if it was brand-name drug manufacturers that created the addiction problem through deceptive marketing? But these firms also benefit from the huge market created by brand-name companies. Nor are their products less likely to be abused. They don’t deserve a pass.
Then there’s the street drug concern. It’s true that many addicts do use street drugs, a reality that some cite as an objection to a fee on prescription drug manufacturers. But according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers.”
Other objections included drug manufacturers passing the cost of this fee to consumers and the potential for drug companies to sue the state if legislation is passed. About the first point: Drug companies got an especially sweet deal in the massive tax cut bill Congress passed in 2017. Prices didn’t go down. Why aren’t state lawmakers asking about this instead of gullibly mouthing the industry line about the Minnesota fees resulting in big price hikes?
On the second point, it’s true Minnesota may get sued by the industry if it enacts either bill. A federal judge ruled against New York’s opioid tax late last year. But the Minnesota bills would raise substantially less money, and neither contains the language creating constitutional problems in New York. That’s no guarantee. But as Rosen put it during an interview, sometimes principle demands that a risk be taken for the greater good.
The Rosen bill and the House bill have different funding mechanisms, with the House focusing tightly on opioid makers and distributors and Rosen’s bill more broadly tapping the health care industry. The Star Tribune Editorial Board does not have a preference. The Senate should pass its bill swiftly and legislators should work carefully to meld the two versions.