Minnesota must address its opioid epidemic

Bipartisan legislation was introduced early this session to raise money to combat the opioid overdose epidemic that claimed the lives of hundreds of Minnesotans last year. The legislation would have charged pharmaceutical companies a “penny-a-pill” for every opioid painkiller they sold. This proposal would have raised an estimated $20 million in continued funding for prevention and treatment programsUnfortunately, the “penny-a-pill” legislation faces an uncertain future because of pressure from pharmaceutical lobbyists and the Americans for Prosperity organization founded by the conservative Koch Brothers. The House version of the bill no longer includes the fee on manufacturers. Instead, money for the programs would come out of the state general fund, which would be one-time funding. The Senate version of the bill was tabled by the author.

Minnesota Department of Health data shows the state had 395 opioid deaths in 2016, an 18% increase over 2015. Of those 395 deaths, 194 were linked to prescription opioids. It is disappointing this critical legislation—which has bipartisan support—is getting waylaid. Advocates argue that drug manufacturers need to pay their fair share for the harm their products have caused and alleviate some of the financial burden borne almost entirely by taxpayers to address the crisis. There have been lawsuits filed across the country contending that drug companies knew how addictive opioids were, but still pushed for them to be widely prescribed. Despite mounting pressure, the industry has largely managed to curb efforts to hold them accountable.

Separate legislation that expands response efforts was heard this week in the Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee. The bill creates a pilot project to provide $1 million in grants for community paramedics providing services in communities with high levels of opioid use. Grants would support the work of community paramedics to serve patients released from hospitals following an overdose episode by providing follow-up evaluations and health and safety assessments.

Last week, the Shared Solutions Addiction Summit met to address the opioid epidemic. They are working from the premise that states need to focus on addiction and substance use disorder (SUD) as a chronic health condition. This Summit was designed to be a catalyst for a coordinated state-wide prevention-intervention-treatment-recovery education campaign that provides essential training to both professionals and the public at large.

While efforts have been building across Minnesota to address this urgent public health crisis, there is still so much more to do.  The legislature must continue to push for the kind of comprehensive solutions that are necessary for turning the tide and saving lives.