Minn. lawmakers pushed to act fast on opioid settlement deal

Opioid Crisis State vs Local
Family and friends who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles in protest in August 2018 outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, which is owned by the Sackler family. In Minnesota, state lawmakers could vote soon on a bill paving the way for opioid legal settlement money to begin flowing.
Jessica Hill | AP Photo 2018

Minnesota is in line for about $300 million from a national settlement with major opioid manufacturers, but how soon that money gets put to use fighting addiction and its spillover effects is up to state lawmakers. 

A bill that ratifies terms of the legal settlement and guides cities, counties and tribal governments could reach final votes soon. At least that’s the hope of legislation backers, who say it will enable Minnesota to start collecting its share as early as possible. 

“Minnesota could begin receiving our lawsuit settlement funds as early as April if this bill was passed,” said Julie Ring, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties. “We know that's probably an aggressive timeline in the Legislature, but the sooner it's passed — meaning this session — the sooner the money will begin to flow in Minnesota.”

Thousands of lawsuits were filed by government entities around the country in the past eight years over the devastation caused by highly addictive prescription painkillers. The medications were freely prescribed and subsequently abused.

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Known opioid overdoses have killed more than 5,000 Minnesotans and had a much broader societal toll. 

Last year, some of the main opioid makers, Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, pushed to reach a global deal to settle claims. Almost every state and many local entities signed on. In turn, they agreed to release the manufacturers from future claims.

In Minnesota, the state is receiving 25 percent of settlement dollars coming in. Local governments will share 75 percent. All counties and dozens of cities will receive money, ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to tens of millions. 

More than 140 Minnesota cities, including all with populations above 10,000, have agreed to the terms, said Assistant Attorney General Evan Romanoff.

The money will be delivered in annual installments over 18 years, similar to the setup when Minnesota struck a deal with the tobacco industry.

The bill before lawmakers would set up a special fund for the settlement money to land in.

“The legislation is about capturing money from the settlement as efficiently and effectively as possible to then be dispersed to fight the opioid epidemic,” said Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth and the House sponsor.

House DFL leaders Liz Olson, Ryan Winkler and Melissa Hortman
House DFL leaders Liz Olson, Ryan Winkler and Melissa Hortman.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Potential uses for the money run the gamut and are spelled out in detail in a memorandum and agreement between the state and its local partners.

Some would go toward intervention, treatment and recovery programs — whether that’s telehealth, mobile or in-patient programs. That might include enhanced access to job training, housing, child care or legal services given that the people most affected often have their lives upended.

Money could be used to step up training for dependency counselors and others who may come in contact with people dealing with addiction. Or it could support scholarships or other education assistance to attract more people to drug counseling professions, with an emphasis on getting more providers in rural or underserved areas.

Criminal justice programs geared toward drug abuse response could be bolstered. So would social services to help family members cope with collateral effects of addiction.

And there are a range of possible uses for prevention efforts, emergency response and clinical research.

Given that some of these same concerns are present on Native American reservations here, there are steps being taken to make sure tribal governments qualify for help.

They would be able to access grants through the state’s settlement share managed by the Department of Human Services. Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanangan has been closely tracking the deliberations and said inclusion of tribal services is key.

“Our Indigenous relatives are some of the folks who have been hardest hit. Native people are seven times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than white Minnesotans,” she said. “That is unacceptable, and we want to make sure that we are working with our partners in the community to stop that trend.” 

A woman speaks at a lecturn in front of others.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan speaks at a press conference in 2021.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Flanagan said it’s important that programs are designed to make sure “treatment is available for folks – and the culturally responsive and relevant treatment is available for folks as well.”

Representatives from local government organizations have been working with state officials since last summer to reach agreement on a distribution plan and a corresponding bill. There appears to be consensus around this one.

Identical bills are in front of the House and Senate, with prominent sponsors.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen, who earlier in her legislative career helped write laws to crack down on methamphetamine, said the broad-based approach here is pivotal.

“It's constantly whack-a-mole with these drug issues,” Rosen said. “So we need to get upstream and figure out why we're having this problem. A lot of it is mental health because of course it’s co-occurring.”

Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said the settlement money should dovetail with efforts lawmakers have taken in recent years. 

“With the opioid epidemic, the doctors prescribing and it's such an addictive drug, we took  responsible measures for that,” she said. “But now it's what's the next drug of choice if we take care of the opioids?”

In 2019, Minnesota lawmakers set up an Opioid Epidemic Response Advisory Council to coordinate an approach for dealing with opioid-caused problems. 

Drug manufacturers, distributors and prescribers are charged fees to fund programs.

Those annual fees will eventually be reduced, but not before a certain amount of settlement money materializes and not before 2031 under the bill.

Ring, of the county association, said people shouldn’t see the settlement as a substitute for the financial emphasis the state has already put on tackling the drug epidemic.

“There is a huge need, and the more resources, the better,” Ring said. “And so we hope that the Legislature will continue to commit important resources to this issue in addition to that settlement money. That's really important to us.”