Gov. Mark Dayton and a bipartisan group of lawmakers called for a tax on prescription opioids Wednesday, proposing that the money raised be used to alleviate the epidemic that killed nearly 400 Minnesotans in 2016.
Dayton was joined at a Wednesday news conference by Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who both lost children to opioid addiction. “I don’t want to see other families go through what my family went through when we lost our son,” Baker said.
The plan would tax prescription opioids a penny on each milligram of active ingredient in a pain pill. The proceeds, estimated to be about $20 million per year, would go toward prevention, emergency response, treatment and recovery, and law enforcement.
The rapid rise in Minnesota opioid fatalities — a 66 percent increase between 2010 and 2016 — is part of a trend that has pushed total opioid deaths above 53,000 nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than the number killed in car crashes and gun homicides — combined.
Dayton and the lawmakers used tough language to describe the drug companies, whose resistance to the new tax they will likely need to overcome during the legislative session that begins Feb. 20.
“I know the pharmaceutical companies had the data, they had the studies that showed them these drugs were dangerously addictive,” Eaton said. “And they tried to get doctors to prescribe them more to make money.”
“I don’t see any reason why the taxpayers should have to pay to fix this. I believe [pharmaceutical companies] owe reparations,” she said.
Nick McGee, director of public affairs at the PhRMA, the leading pharmaceutical trade association, said the tax would have “negative consequences” on “patients and innovation.”
“This proposed tax ignores all the factors that led to this public health crisis, including the substantial influx of heroin, counterfeit fentanyl and other illegal drugs, and fails to recognize existing funding available for treatment, prevention and other important programs to help communities,” McGee said in an e-mail.
The pharmaceutical industry spent more than $277 million lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and $60 million on federal campaigns. The industry spent at least $386,000 on Minnesota campaigns in 2016, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
Resistance to the painkiller tax has already arrived from anti-tax champion Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, an influential conservative group whose seal of approval is highly sought after by Republican lawmakers.
“This proposal seeks to impose an economically damaging cash grab disguised as an addiction mitigation effort,” Norquist wrote in a letter to Minnesota legislators in January. “This is simply another example of a tax hike that does not achieve its ostensible goal but does have negative unintended consequences.”
Despite the influence of the drug industry, lawmakers will face pressure to take action given the scale of the epidemic, which President Donald Trump called “the worst drug crisis in American history.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he does not know the legislative specifics well enough to support it, but he added: “It’s a priority of mine to do significant legislation this session trying to solve or reduce the opioid crisis.”
The Dayton administration estimates nearly 17,000 Minnesotans abuse opioids based on population and addiction rates.
The epidemic has known no geographic boundaries, hitting metro cities and suburbs but also small towns in every corner of the state.
American Indian and communities of color have been hit hardest: Minnesota Indians are five times more likely to die of a drug overdose than whites, while blacks are twice as likely — the highest disparities in the nation, according to the administration.
The plan would dole out $5 million to communities most in need, including $4 million to 11 tribal nations.
Money would go to improving prescription monitoring because 1 percent of prescribers account for 21 percent of prescriptions of controlled substances, according to the administration.
More money would be available for treatment and medical care of addicts. More first responders would be given naloxone, an antidote that can pull a user out of an opioid overdose. The state’s drug labs would be able to hire more scientists to turn around drug analysis to help law enforcement.
The legislation would build on steps the Dayton administration has already taken, including new guidelines to health care providers for curbing opioid prescriptions and weaning chronic pain patients off the addictive painkillers.
The guidelines encourage doctors to use the lowest possible opioid dose for treatment of acute pain after surgeries or injuries and discourage the long-term use for chronic pain.
Baker said the opioid crisis is a stain on the national soul: “If I was standing here 10 years ago and said these numbers I would have laughed because I would have never dreamed we would as a country allow it to get this bad.”