As the opioid addiction crisis continues, it has drawn the attention of Minnesota legislators, including those from Anoka County.
Separate bills have passed in the House and Senate to raise money and implement measures to combat the epidemic, and a conference committee has been working to find a compromise.
If signed into law, the legislation would create an advisory council to confront the opioid crisis, focusing on topics such as addiction prevention, education and treatment access.
The legislation would also generate $20 million a year through fees on drug companies. The money would go into a new account to fund a variety of programs and grants aimed at treatment, recovery and more.
A significant difference between the House and Senate bills is the Senate version would sunset the high fees if the state reaches large settlements in lawsuits with drug companies.
Gov. Tim Walz has said he expects the conference committee will produce a compromise he can sign, but he’s called the sunset clause a sticking point.
The House bill passed back in March on a 94-34 vote. Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, was a co-author of the House bill and voted in favor. Locally she was joined by Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton; Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park; Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover; and Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids.
Several area Republicans opposed the House bill, including Rep. Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel; Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown; Rep. John Heinrich, R-Anoka; and Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines.
Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, didn’t vote.
Daudt, the House minority leader, said he supports the programs and spending in the bill but not the additional fees on drug companies.
“That just gets passed on to the consumer, and the ultimate effect of that is you’re just raising the cost of health care,” he said.
With a state budget surplus and money coming from the federal government to address the opioid epidemic, Daudt said, the new fees are unnecessary.
“I would have preferred to see that come out of the general fund,” he said. “I feel like the intent (of the fees), some of it, is just to go after the pharmaceuticals.”
“If you want to help people, we’ve got the resources to help people,” Daudt said. “If you want to punish the drug companies, this doesn’t even effectively do that.”
Anoka’s senator, Republican Jim Abeler, sees it differently. He co-authored the Senate bill, and he wants to send a message that manufacturers of dangerous products are responsible for mitigating the effects of the product. He said the point of the bill is to say, “Yes, indeed, a manufacturer and a distributor has a responsibility for the harm their product does.”
“That’s the heart of the issue in my mind,” Abeler said.
He acknowledged a risk of increased prices for patients receiving opioid prescriptions and said it was unfortunate that they may have to pay for opioid manufacturers’ past misdeeds.
But he also said taxpayers are already paying the price of child protection, medical treatment and other costs that accompany opioid addiction.
The Senate version of the bill passed 59-6 April 1, with Michelle Benson, of Ham Lake, among the six Republicans who voted no.
Benson said she supports the goals of the bill but had problems with the funding mechanism in the Senate bill.
“I was concerned that because of the way we’re collecting money from just a few manufacturers, then we wouldn’t actually get that money (if they pulled out of the state),” she said. “I understand the mission and the purpose, and we absolutely need to figure out how to fund this.”
Benson also worried the bill could force out of the state some smaller companies that provide important post-surgical pain management tools.
Despite her concerns with the bill, she said she appreciates much of what the bill does and says it “(lets) manufacturers and prescribers know that we’re not going to take our eyes off this.”
Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, said he thinks the legislation is a good start on addressing the problem, and he hopes the bill that emerges from the conference committee gives the advisory council “some teeth.”
Sen. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, said, “It’s heartening to know legislators on both sides of the aisle recognize that this is indeed an epidemic and it is about time that those who are profiting from the sale of opioids take responsibility for their over-prescription and pay a price.”
Both the House and Senate bills include reporting requirements to help the Legislature track whether money is being spent effectively to help curb opioid addiction and overdoses.
Reporters Connor Cummiskey and Paige Kieffer contributed to this story.