Opioid fee dies in final hours of session

An attempt to raise money from drug companies to help pay for opioid abuse prevention and treatment measures failed in the 11th hour of the 2018 Minnesota legislative session.

Republican bill authors in the House and Senate said what they called an opioid stewardship fee, a roughly $20 million per year by charge to drug manufacturers and distributors, failed to make it into a final legislative budget bill.

Instead, the proposal includes $16 million from the state’s general fund to pay for more prevention measures and treatment programs. The licensing fee was passed by the Senate this month, but it struggled to gain traction in the House, where some Republican members considered the fee a tax increase on health care.

“A lot of members were concerned about that one big issue: It looks like a tax increase. I was unable to convince my colleagues that it wasn't, at least enough of them,” said Dave Baker, R-Willmar, a supporter of the fee who also lost his son to an opioid overdose. “I knew as a Republican coming into this, this was a very difficult challenge for me.”

Pharmaceutical companies, manufacturers and distributors hired dozens of lobbyists to combat the fees this year, and their strategy worked, Baker said, even after an attempt by Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt to bring them to the table.

“Even through many meetings and demands, even by the speaker, [saying]  ‘You guys need to step up and help us,’ it resulted in nothing,” Baker said. “That was a big disappointment. They won this round in that case, but we are going to still fight hard for people who are struggling.”

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That frustrated the proposal’s supporters in the Senate, where the fee passed by a 60-6 vote. In a late-night budget conference committee Friday, Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said the final bill was a "significant compromise" from the Senate position. 

"We are missing a very important piece of that, and that's the pharmaceutical companies, the manufacturers and the distributors," she added. "They are the ones that are out in the halls, hanging around, and we were not successful in making them part of the recovery of the state."

Even state-backed funding for opioid prevention is uncertain. Legislators haven't sent Gov. Mark Dayton the final budget bill, and he hasn't promised to sign the proposal, which includes other provisions he objects to. Dayton supported raising fees on pharmaceutical companies.

Legislators are facing a deadline to finish all their work by midnight on Sunday.