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Minnesota legislators aim to change how opioids are prescribed

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Rep. Dave Baker lost his son to opioid overdose.
Republican Rep. Dave Baker, pictured in his office on June 1, 2015, has led efforts to expand programs that prevent opioid overdose deaths.
Jeffrey Thompson for MPR News 2015

The fight against opioid overdoses takes center stage at the Minnesota Capitol Thursday as lawmakers take up several bills aimed at ending the crisis.

People who have lost loved ones to the drugs have organized another opioid awareness day on the Hill, where they will tell lawmakers to tighten restrictions on prescription painkillers and to tax pharmaceutical companies to pay for addiction treatment.

In 2016, 395 people across Minnesota died after overdosing on prescription opioid pain medication or heroin. That figure — the most recent available — represents an 18 percent increase over the previous year. The state health department says thousands of others survived their overdoses, but only after a trip to the hospital.

State Rep. Dave Baker lost his 25-year-old son Dan to opioids in 2011.

The Willmar Republican is the chief author of two bills he hopes will keep other families from going through the same thing. One proposal would prohibit pharmacists from filling opioid painkiller prescriptions that are more than 30 days old. 

Baker's other measure would impose what he calls a "stewardship fee" of one cent per milligram of opioids in a pill.

"We want to be aggressive about this. We want to go after the folks that have hurt our communities like no one else has. We are asking them and demanding [that they] step up to the table," Baker said.

The penny-a-pill tax is expected to raise about $20 million a year for services including addiction treatment, overdose prevention and the state's existing prescription drug monitoring program.  

Republican Julie Rosen of Vernon Center — who's sponsoring a similar measure in the Senate — says that funding is critical. 

"We need money to take care of prevention, treatment, aftercare. And we need it to also take care of these children who've been affected at the local level," Rosen said.

Rosen is optimistic the legislation will pass. The bills have bipartisan backing among lawmakers, and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton also supports them.  

However, the measures will no doubt face stiff opposition from the drug industry. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America — or PhRMA — has five lobbyists working on its behalf in St. Paul. 

In a statement, PhRMA spokesperson Nick McGee said the proposed tax would ostracize and penalize people suffering from pain who rely on the drugs legitimately.

He also said the measure "ignores the factors that led to this public health crisis, including the substantial influx of heroin, counterfeit fentanyl and other illegal drugs." 

But Joe Rannazzisi, who used to run the Drug Enforcement Administration's Office of Diversion Control, says prescription drugs that are at the root of the crisis.

Rannazzisi said he was pushed out of his job in 2015 for speaking out against federal legislation that made it harder for the DEA to go after drug distributors who fail to report suspicious orders. 

He told state lawmakers Wednesday that people who become addicted to illegal opioids such as heroin often start with prescription pain medication.

"You're going to hear that the problem is fentanyl and heroin, and it is," he said. "It's a big problem. But we cannot get to fentanyl and heroin without starting at the prescription drugs. We didn't have a fentanyl and heroin problem in 1999, when this nonsense started. We did have a problem with prescription drugs, and it just got worse and worse." 

The House Health and Human Services Reform committee takes up Baker's penny-a-pill bill Thursday morning.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says lawmakers in at least 10 other state capitols from Alaska to New Jersey have proposed similar taxes on opioids in the last year, though so far none has passed.