Penny-A-Pill legislation undergoes significant changes

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 programs.

Although the bill continues to have bipartisan support, it was almost completely derailed when it was tabled in the Finance Committee after immense pressure from the pharmaceutical industry. The Finance Committee finally took up the bill again earlier this week but the author came prepared to make a substantial change. The penny-a-pill fee on manufacturers was eliminated and replaced by a registration fee on opiate manufacturers and wholesalers. The bill still raises $20 million per year to fund opioid treatment and prevention programs.

Proponents of the change argue that funding is still coming from the industry, not from taxpayers, and this change improves the chances that the legislation will ultimately pass. While the reasons for the change are concerning, the bill remains far stronger than the version in the House which is funding entirely by state dollars, letting the industry of the hook entirely.

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 deeply concerning that this critical legislation—which has bipartisan support—has faced such opposition away from public view. The pharmaceutical lobbyists have failed to provide any public testimony and have instead chosen to wage their campaign to avoid accountability in the shadows.

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.

While the penny-a-pill fee is no longer in either bill, the Senate is holding strong on getting a bill across the finish line that requires the pharmaceutical industry to finally take responsibility and contribute just a small sliver of their sky-rocketing profits. (SF 730)