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Minnesota lawmakers: Tax drug makers over opioid crisis

January 31, 2019
Minnesota state Sen. Chris Eaton, left, and Chazz Smith, right, a cousin of the late rock star Prince, attend a rally at the Minnesota state Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, in support of legislation to fight the opioid crisis. Prince died in 2016 of an accidental opioid overdose. Eaton is sponsoring a bill to force drug companies to pay more of the costs of the crisis. Smith told the crowd Prince's death shows the power that addiction can hold on anyone. (AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Lawmakers and activists are making a push to force drug companies to pay more of the costs of the opioid crisis, and they got a boost Wednesday from a cousin of the most famous Minnesotan to die from the addictive drugs, the late rock star Prince.

Chazz Smith told a rally of over 80 people in the Capitol rotunda that his younger cousin had everything, yet opioids still took his life in 2016 . Authorities blamed counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl that looked like generic Vicodin. Smith said Prince’s death shows the power that addiction can hold on anyone.

“We’ve lost legends, we’ve lost potential legends, and that’s a shame,” Smith said.

The rally preceded a hearing before a House health and human services committee on a bill to require manufacturers and wholesalers that sell or distribute opioids in Minnesota to pay registration fees ranging as high as $500,000 for the biggest companies. The current fee is just $235.

The measure is a different approach from the “penny a pill” tax that passed the Senate last year but stalled out in the House amid industry opposition. It would raise about $20 million annually to fund prevention, treatment and education programs, and to support county child protection agencies that have been swamped by the crisis.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan told the gathering that passing the bill is a priority for Democratic Gov. Tim Walz.

Bill sponsors said at a news conference that the industry should pay its fair share for a crisis that it helped create. They pointed out that more than 400 people died of opioid overdoses in Minnesota in 2017, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

“In communities across the state, it appears that this opioid crisis that we’re in really has no end in sight,” said Rep. Liz Olson, a Duluth Democrat. “Without this swift legislative action, there indeed might not be an end. Parents have lost children, teachers have lost students, our first responders are asked to respond to impossible situations, and no other family deserves to go through this.”

Other leading sponsors include Rep. Dave Baker, a Republican from Willmar, and Sen. Chris Eaton, a Brooklyn Park Democrat, who have both lost children to opioid overdoses. Baker’s son, Dan, 25, died in 2011 of a heroin overdose after becoming addicted to opiate pain pills for a back injury. Eaton’s daughter, Ariel, was 23 when she died of a heroin overdose in 2007.

“I don’t want other families to go through the trauma that I did,” Eaton said.

Sen. Julie Rosen, a Republican from Vernon Center, said the manufacturers and distributors have been “kicking and screaming a little bit” but now tell her they want to be part of the solution. “I asked them, ‘What does that look like?’ and I have not received an answer,” she added.

“We’re spending billions on an issue you helped create,” Rosen said. “I don’t think we’re asking for a whole lot for the amount that they are shipping and manufacturing for the state of Minnesota, and the amount of deaths that we have.”

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also known as PhRMA, opposed last year’s bill. While the trade group says it supports ”an extensive set of policy recommendations ,” including measures to curb overprescribing, it opposes this year’s bill as well.

“Unfortunately, what’s being proposed — taxing legitimately prescribed medicines that patients rely on for legitimate medical needs to raise revenues for the state — ignores evidence-based solutions, sets a dangerous precedent and ultimately won’t help patients and families,” Nick McGee, the trade group’s director of public affairs, said in an email to The Associated Press.