‘A David vs Goliath moment:' Senate passes opioid fee bill

After years of debating who should pay for Minnesota’s opioid addiction crisis, the state Senate voted Monday to slap new fees on drug companies to raise $20 million for treatment and prevention.

The bill passed, 59-6, with Republicans casting the only votes against the measure. The Senate’s action sets up negotiations with the House, which passed a different version of the legislation in March.

The Senate debate was an emotional one for a senator whose daughter fatally overdosed in 2007 and for people watching from the gallery, drawn into the debate after their loved ones died of addiction.

“It does feel like a David vs. Goliath moment,” said Shelly Elkington, whose daughter, Casey Jo Schulte, died in 2015. “All these people are proof that you can fight and you can do the right thing, and we just had a vote in the Senate that shows that.”

The overwhelming vote made it apparent that a majority of Minnesota lawmakers expect to hold drug companies accountable for the opioid crisis. But, Democrats and Republicans raised several questions Monday about the specifics of the effort to do that.

The major sticking point in negotiations appears to be a provision in the Senate bill that rolls back most of the fee increase if Minnesota reaches a legal settlement of at least $20 million with a drug company. Last week, Oklahoma settled with Purdue Pharma for $270 million.

Democrats said the fee increase should be considered the cost of doing business in Minnesota, separate from any settlement.

“We’re going to fund this on an ongoing basis,” said state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville. “We’re not going to step back because the attorney general can win some money in court.”

Gov. Tim Walz told reporters Monday that he would be more vocal about the issue now with the bill headed for conference committee, and said he was hopeful that lawmakers would quickly get a bill to his desk.

Walz said he was open to a “sunset” of the new fees--but only if they’re effective at reducing addiction, and not because of a potential settlement.

Minnesota’s licensing fee for drug manufacturers and distributors is currently $235, which supporters of the legislation say is one of the lowest in the country. The Senate bill would raise the fees on the biggest opioid manufacturers to $305,000 a year.

The drug industry has fought the proposed fee increase. PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s trade group, has said Minnesota lawmakers are considering a tax on medications that people rely on. Others, including the conservative Americans For Prosperity chapter in Minnesota, have said drug companies will simply pass along the cost increases to customers.

“Yes, it is aggressive,” said state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, the legislation’s lead author. “But honestly, every single day I’ve woken up and said this is the right thing to do. We’re only asking for $20 million.”

State Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, invoked her daughter’s memory during Monday’s debate. Eaton’s daughter, Ariel, died in 2007 of an opioid overdose. Monday would’ve been her 35th birthday, Eaton said.

“The heartbreak is indescribable, having been there myself,” Eaton said. “I can tell you after 12 years, it’s still there, but I’m used to it. You just learn to live with it.”

Some senators said the legislation does not hold enough stakeholders, including doctors, accountable for the opioid crisis.

“Are we asking doctors to pay for any of this? They were the ones handing out (prescriptions),” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake. Benson ultimately voted against the bill.

But fellow Republican Sen. Scott Jensen of Chaska, a medical doctor, pushed back against Benson’s criticism. Jensen said there was a time that doctors were “accused of being insensitive” if they didn’t prescribe pain medication to their patients.

Jensen said he is among the physicians who have stopped chronic pain management.

“I have received cards and notes from patients that are dear to me, asking why I’ve abandoned them in their time of need, so I think we need to be careful when we talk in that spirit,” Jensen said.