Minnesota House aims to hit drug companies for opioid crisis

By STEVE KARNOWSKIFeaturesAssociated Press

The Minnesota House voted Monday night to hold drug manufacturers responsible for the state's growing costs for dealing with the opioid crisis.

The bill passed 94-34 after around four hours of debate that split mostly along party lines. It would support a wide range of prevention, education, intervention, treatment and recovery strategies. The state would pay for them by sharply raising its currently low annual registration fees for pharmaceutical manufacturers and drug wholesalers that sell or distribute opioids in Minnesota.

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The fees would bring in $20 million a year that would go into a new "Opioid Stewardship Fund." A new advisory council would then make recommendations to state officials on how to spend it. Any settlements that the state reaches from opioid lawsuits against drug companies would also be deposited into the fund.

An opioid bill with some differences is working its way through the GOP-controlled Senate and has another hearing scheduled for Tuesday. The two versions are expected to go to a conference committee for resolution.

According to the sponsors, opioid-involved overdoses led to more than 2,000 visits to Minnesota emergency rooms in 2017, while opioid-related overdose deaths in Minnesota have increased steadily since 2010, to 395 in 2016.

The lead author, Rep. Liz Olson, told her colleagues that taxpayers have been among the hardest hit by the opioid crisis. "This cost of responding to this crisis is huge, and it's hard to even calculate," the Duluth Democrat said. As just one example, she said, county social service agencies are "drowning" in costs for placing children from affected families into other homes.

But Olson said one sector has benefited from opioids while failing to step forward to combat the epidemic — the pharmaceutical industry.

"With profits in the hundreds of millions, these groups have still not come to the table," she said.

Rep. Dave Baker, of Willmar, whose son, Dan Baker, became addicted to opioid painkillers and died of a heroin overdose in 2011, was among the Republicans supporting the bill. He said it would put Minnesota on the "cutting edge" of fighting the opioid crisis.

Baker was a chief author of a bill with a different funding mechanism, dubbed "penny a pill," which passed the Senate last year but failed to get a House floor vote amid industry opposition. Since then, Democrats have taken control of the House.

Republican House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who was speaker last session, led the opposition, saying imposing higher costs on the industry runs counter to the goal of reducing health care costs for consumers.

"This will literally increase the cost of health care for every Minnesotan," he said.