Opioid deal puts drugmakers on hook for problems

Randy Anderson, a drug counselor, takes a selfie with other supporters of a bill to make opioid manufacturers pay for new response programs. Sen. Chris Eaton, on right, is next to Rep. Dave Baker, who helped shape the bill. Brian Bakst | MPR News

As soon as a landmark opioid addiction response bill got the green light from legislative negotiators Monday, Randy Anderson pumped his fist and then exchanged hugs and high-fives with others in the hearing room audience and ultimately lawmakers, too.

Anderson, an addiction counselor in Golden Valley who is in long-term recovery himself, has been watching the issue slog along for years as part of the Steve Rummler Hope Network, an awareness and support organization founded by the parents of a man who died of an addiction to opioids.

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“It’ll save lives.That’s the bottom line for me,” Anderson said. “People won’t die because we’ll have more money to provide resources.”

That money -- included in a bill passed with overwhelming support before the Legislature adjourned Monday night -- will come from substantially higher licensing fees on companies in the prescription painkiller business. Some big manufacturers will have to pay $305,000 annually to operate in Minnesota.

The fees are expected to generate $20 million each year, which will go into a dedicated fund that can be used solely for opioid-related response programs.

If the state settles pending court cases with drugmakers, the fees could be reduced but not until after $250 million is generated and not before 2024.

“We are going to save a bunch of lives with money we didn’t have yesterday,” said Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar.

“We need to look at this bill as a very first step and a bold step, and it’s a simple step, I think, $20 million when you start looking at the overall picture of what the cost has been to our communities and what the profits have been for certain companies.”

Treatment facilities will see more money. Law enforcement will get reinforcements to target traffickers. Counties will receive assistance in dealing with children pulled out of homes where one parent or both have drug problems. Prescribers, from dentists to doctors, will undergo more training on how to properly dispense the medicines and advise patients about their addictive nature.

Hundreds of deaths in Minnesota are attributed each year to opioid abuse, from prescription pills to heroin.

Baker is one of two lawmakers -- Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, is the other -- who lost an adult child to an overdose and had a hand in crafting the bill.

“Chris, we did it,” Baker said to her before the conference committee’s unanimous vote.

“I’m hoping that this will provide the services, at least get some of it going, so people know where to go,” Eaton said. “I didn’t know where to go, and I worked as a nurse in mental health in the community. And I was just overwhelmed with my daughter’s addiction.”

Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, was among the few lawmakers to oppose the compromise bill. He says the fees will be passed down to consumers with a legitimate need for the prescription painkillers.

“It’s not going to help people that are at the end of their lives, struggling to pay medical costs, struggling to keep their pain under control,” Munson said.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said the bill is a major step toward dealing with an epidemic.

“This bill is really a nod and a blink and a bow to all those lives that have been lost, and to all those families that have been affected by this mistake basically. It’s a mistake,” Rosen said. “This bill is not about retribution. It’s about taking care of the needs of Minnesotans going forward and making sure we don’t have any more lost loved ones.”

Gov. Tim Walz has signaled support; the negotiators were already making plans for attending the signing ceremony.

Michael Daub, a board member at the Steve Rummler Hope Network, was on the receiving end of an Anderson hug. He said after three years of hearings, votes and negotiations, it’s fulfilling to get to this point.

“I’ve always been cautiously optimistic. I thought we were going to get this through,” Daub said. “As powerful as Big Pharma is -- and we have to recognize how powerful Big Pharma is -- we’re on the right side of this.”

Rosen and fellow conference committee chair, DFL Rep. Liz Olson of Duluth, both said they expect to consider additional legislation next year and beyond.

“We’ll have more work to do. This isn’t the end, this is the beginning,” Olson said. “But it’s a really good day to show Minnesotans care about one another.”