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Guest Editorial: Letting drug companies skate on opioid costs is contemptible

Drug industry lobbyists won. Minnesotans lost. That's the brutal bottom line on this year's legislative fight to better fund opioid addiction treatment and prevention while the public health crisis caused by painkillers rages across the state.

As the end-of-session fog lifted this week, it became clear that legislators fell appallingly short of shouldering a critical responsibility — creating a fair framework to generate the dollars needed to help struggling families and communities. This failure is even more frustrating given that a measure that would have accomplished this — one that would have levied a $20-million-a-year drug industry "registration fee" — had already overwhelmingly passed the state Senate.

But the registration fee failed to make it into legislation that Republican leaders sent to Gov. Mark Dayton this past weekend. Instead, the final opioid measure not only underfunds the fight against this epidemic, it also gives drug companies a pass when it comes to financial accountability.

The state's opioid response now calls for $16.2 million in general fund dollars to be spread out over the next three years vs. the $20 million that would have been raised annually with the registration fee, which was admirably championed by Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center.

As for the drug companies whose deceptive marketing fueled this deadly epidemic? Their lobbyists descended on St. Paul to fight Rosen's sensible fee. They earned their big paychecks when Minnesota Republican legislative leaders chose to ask the industry for nothing. Taxpayers, in other words, get the bill to clean up after the crisis, while the companies that caused it get to skate.

It is a contemptible outcome. New York boldly passed a requirement this year that drug companies pay $100 million toward opioid treatment and prevention. Minnesota asked for a reasonable sum given its smaller population. But Republican leaders still bowed to lobbyists even after Rosen had fiercely fought to shepherd her measure through the Senate.

About 400 Minnesotans die each year from opioid-related overdoses. Voters, if your elected leaders can't stand up to the drug industry in the teeth of this epidemic, when will they ever have a backbone?

As hard as it is to believe, the situation is worse than it appears. The opioid measure was not sent to Dayton as a stand-alone bill, as it should have it been. It is instead part of a sprawling supplemental budget bill containing many objectionable provisions and may be vetoed. That puts the $16 million for opioid measures at risk and also jeopardizes other smaller but worthy advances, such as prescribing limits for these medications.

The bill's inclusion in the spending bill drew blistering criticism at a Tuesday news conference held by Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who lost a daughter to an overdose and worked with Rosen to craft the Senate bill. Eaton contended that House Speaker Kurt Daudt misled about sending the opioid measures separately, and she called for a veto of the big spending bill. Dr. Chris Johnson, who spoke at the event, called the legislative maneuvering a "hostile act" that will "cost lives."

In a statement Tuesday, Daudt said that House Republicans have invested $22 million since 2015 "toward opioid addiction, prevention, and recovery as well as several no-cost reforms such as improvements to prescription monitoring and the opiate prescription disclosure sticker requirement." He urged Dayton to sign the supplemental budget bill and said it contains reforms to prevent overprescribing, help for first responders and funding for a treatment model at Little Falls-based CHI St. Gabriel's Health.

These are worthy measures, but the core of this year's effort was robust and fair funding from those who created the crisis — drug companies. Political leaders who buckled to lobbyists at session's end shouldn't escape accountability, either.

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