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'We’re going to save a bunch of lives': Opioid response bill makes it out in final hours

Sen. Chris Eaton, left, and Rep. Dave Baker, right, spoke about losing their children to opioid addiction and a bill they passed Monday, May 20, that would increase resources for treatment and education.

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives on Monday, May 20, approved a proposal to hike the fee on drug manufacturers to pay for the impacts of the opioid epidemic.

In the final hours of the legislative session, a conference committee put up a last-minute deal that would require the manufacturers and distributors to pay fees expected to total more than $20 million. Those funds would be used to provide education and prevention programs as well as treatment programs.

The package was years in the making, and its authors said they were determined to get it passed this year, even if it wasn't perfect.

“This bill is not about retribution (against the drug companies)," Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said. "It’s about taking care of the needs of Minnesotans going forward and making sure we don’t have any more lost loved ones.”

Rosen acknowledged "clunkers" in the bill that she committed to fixing in future legislative sessions.

The state has sued the drugmakers and if it receives a settlement, that could offset the fees, but not until $250 million has been generated and not before 2024. The plan would also boost funding to social service agencies that have borne the cost of out-of-home placement of children whose parents became addicted to opioids and establish an advisory council to provide further guidance on the issue.

The number of opioid-related deaths is on the rise, according to state statistics, as are emergency medical treatments for those overdosing on opioids.

Several lawmakers that spoke about the bill highlighted the years-long effort to make the drug companies come to the table to help clean up the impacts of the opioid epidemic in Minnesota. And they said its passage exemplified the concern and compassion that Minnesotans have for one another.

“This is a transformative piece of legislation,” Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said. “We’ll have more work to do. This isn’t the end, this is the beginning."

Not everyone agreed with the bill.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, complained that the legislation would raise costs of “farmers and ranchers of Minnesota who are struggling to make ends meet” because it would charge veterinarians who prescribe opioids $5,000 a year.

It also would raise costs for sick Minnesotans, Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Crystal Lake, said. “Taxing the sickest among us is not a moral thing to do.”

For Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, the bill's passage was especially meaningful. Baker's son and Eaton's daughter died after they'd become addicted to opioids. And the pair for years had pushed for reforms that boosted access to treatment resources for those affected by opioids.

“We’re one of the first states to do this," Baker said. "When you look at the overall picture of what the cost has been to our communities and what the profits have been for certain companies, $20 million is a good start. I am so proud to be a legislator today. We’re going to save a bunch of lives with some money that we didn’t have yesterday.”

He looked across the table to Eaton and said, "Chris, we did it," just before the panel unanimously approved the proposal on a voice vote.

Eaton, speaking on the Senate floor Monday night, said, "A lot of tears have been shed designing this bill and a lot of hard work. And I know there are a lot of children looking down, proud of their parents today."

The House approved the bill on a 109-25 vote and the Senate approved it on a 60-3 vote.

The bill moves now to Gov. Tim Walz's desk for his signature. The DFL governor has said he will sign it into law.