A push to force drug companies to pay more to curb Minnesota’s opioid epidemic got a boost from the family of the late artist Prince on Wednesday, as advocates rallied in support of new proposals to combat the epidemic.
“We’re losing legends, we’re losing potential legends and that’s a shame,” drummer and activist Charles “Chazz” Smith said of his cousin, who died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in April 2016. “Prince had everything, everything you can ever want, and it touched him.”
Smith’s appearance at the third annual Opioid Awareness Day at the State Capitol came amid a renewed effort to pass broad legislation on the issue. Speakers, including several legislators, urged state leaders to hold companies that make highly addictive prescription drugs accountable for their role in the crisis.
Advocate Shelly Elkington held back tears as she recounted her own daughter’s struggle with heroin and eventual overdose death after becoming addicted to painkillers doctors prescribed after a surgery.
“Republicans and Democrats are sending one message to the pharmaceutical companies. And they’re saying: It’s time to pay,” Elkington said.
State legislators want to raise $20 million for prevention and response efforts by increasing fees on companies that make and distribute the prescription drugs. Similar legislation stalled last session following intense lobbying from drug companies that oppose the fee change. This year, supporters hope DFL control in the House will improve their chances. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, also a Democrat, told advocates Wednesday that the issue is a priority for the administration.
PhRMA, the trade group representing drug manufacturers, remains opposed to the proposal.
Nick McGee, PhRMA’s director of public affairs, said that while the group “is committed to doing our part by working with health care stakeholders, policymakers and others in Minnesota to bring forward real solutions to help those on the front lines,” the crisis is “too broad and complex for any one person or group to solve alone.”
“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,” he said.
Supporters hope that increased awareness of the issue and a shift in political dynamics will be enough to overcome industry opposition.
“This is a different bill, it’s a different year, it’s a different governor, we have different members here, but everyone cares about this issue tremendously,” said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, whose son died of an overdose. “There’s a different tone this year.”