Advocates blame lobbying for killing opioid fees on pharma

Shelly Jo Elkington's daughter died in 2015 after a struggle with opioids.
Shelly Jo Elkington, a board member of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, spoke about her disappointment in the legislative process on Tuesday. Her daughter died in 2015 after a struggle with opioids. She's backed by Minn. Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center.
Jon Collins | MPR News

Supporters of legislation that would have charged pharmaceutical companies a fee to address opioid abuse condemned Tuesday what they described as a backroom lobbying campaign to kill the legislation.

"In the end, Big Pharma, their army of lobbyists, and the chamber and Medical Alley won," said state Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center. "The victims, their families, the people currently addicted and the Minnesota taxpayers lost — and I'm angry and sad."

The bill that included the fee passed the state Senate 60-6, and would have raised $20 million in licensing fees from pharmaceutical companies every year. But that fee failed to make it into the final budget bill, replaced by $16 million from the state general fund.

That budget bill was sent to Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday. He hasn't yet taken action on it. Dayton supported the fee on pharmaceutical companies.

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State House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said in a statement that he strongly encouraged the governor to sign the budget bill that includes general funds for opioid programs, among many other provisions, into law.

Daudt said the final version of the budget bill included "funds for St. Gabriel's for opioid addiction prevention, enhancements to the Prescription Monitoring Program to prevent doctor shopping and over-prescribing, [a] prescribing limit to reduce the number of pills on the street, and resources for first-responders dealing with overdoses."

Eaton, whose daughter Ariel died of an overdose in 2007, said she's urged the governor to veto the budget bill. She said "taxpayers have paid enough" of the costs associated with the opioid epidemic. Eaton also disagreed with other parts of the almost 1,000-page bill.

The Republican authors of the stewardship fee bill in the Senate and House complained throughout the session that drug company lobbyists weren't engaged in funding solutions. Pharmaceutical and some business groups argued that a fee wasn't an appropriate funding mechanism.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors funded a robust lobbying effort at the Minnesota Capitol this session, which advocates blamed for the fee's defeat.

House author Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said he was frustrated with the response of pharmaceutical companies. But he said some of the money in the bill will cover costs for treatment, naloxone and programs to taper opioid users off the drugs in rural Minnesota.

"I'm not done fighting by any means to get these bad pharmaceutical companies and distributors to help us, but to throw up everything and to say we should veto it is not something I would say is good for people in addiction," Baker said.

Baker, whose son Dan died of an opioid overdose in 2011, said he was grateful that his caucus agreed to set aside money from the general fund for programs to address opioids.

"It wasn't that the speaker or my leadership or the caucus doesn't care about the issue, they just thought this is a really tricky item," Baker said. "Do we want to be punitive or do we want to save people? Bottom line, I want to save people."

Shelly Jo Elkington pushed for the fee as a board member of the Steve Rummler Hope Network. She said House leadership let her down.

"Every week I would get messages saying that somebody's child had died, and I feel like I let them down," Elkington said. "To all those families, I'm sorry, I'm ashamed of the process. And I hope someday we can make it right."

Executive Director Lexi Reed Holtum said her group has supporters around the state who have lost loved ones to overdose.

"It's our responsibility to make sure that constituents that support us are aware of who voted what way, what happened," Reed Holtum said, "and we intend to do that in force."

Dayton has 14 days from adjournment to act on the supplemental budget bill.

At least 401 people died of opioid overdoses in Minnesota last year, according to preliminary numbers.