Walz warns drug makers to work with lawmakers on opioid fee bill

Gov. Tim Walz is signaling support for legislation increasing fees on drug companies to combat the state’s opioid crisis, warning company executives not to fight the bill.

Lawmakers want to raise $20 million for prevention and treatment efforts, similar to an effort that failed in 2018. Walz put the blame on a “lobbying blitz” at the end of the legislative session, a point the governor said he made to about 12 company executives on a telephone call Tuesday afternoon.

“There will be no tolerance this year for that,” Walz told reporters during a news conference in his state Capitol reception room. “I didn’t use it as a threat, but I reminded them that just 9 percent of the public believes that pharmaceutical companies put patients above profits.”

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill increase the current $235 per year licensing fee that companies must pay to do business in Minnesota. The Senate’s legislation caps the fee at $500,000, while the House version had no cap.

Republican state Rep. Dave Baker and Democratic state Sen. Chris Eaton lost children to addiction. They are among the bipartisan group of lawmakers pushing the bills.

Walz said he got no assurances from company executives that they would not lobby fiercely against the legislation, but said he believed the executives “undoubtedly” understood they had a responsibility to help.

Nick McGee, a spokesman for the trade group PhRMA, said the pharmaceutical industry was committed to a solution. PhRMA had a representative on the call, McGee said.

“We appreciate the opportunity to continue our dialogue with the governor about how everyone, including manufacturers, prescribers, distributors, health plans, and law enforcement can work with his administration to deliver real solutions to this complex public health crisis,” McGee said in an emailed statement.

The legislation aims to get $12 million from opioid manufacturers and $8 million from distributors. Drug company representatives have said they’re being singled out for a problem when doctors and health insurers share blame.

A group of Minnesota patients rallied last month at the Capitol, fearing that the drug companies will pass their increased fees along to consumers. Walz acknowledged the concern Tuesday.

“I think most of us recognize that whenever we do these things, that there’s an attempt to pass it on to the consumer – (like) adding anti-lock brakes to automobiles. The price went up, even though it added safety,” the governor said.

New York passed a law banning drug companies from passing the costs to consumers, but the drug makers sued and a federal court ruled in December that the law violated the U.S. Constitution.

The House version of the bill has already passed one committee and faces another hearing this week. The Senate bill has not advanced, but Walz said he wasn’t concerned about that.

“The end of the last session and what happened probably steeled folks more to get this done,” he said. “I’m confident it’ll get there.”