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Opioid package passes Minnesota Senate, will require negotiation with House

Minnesota state Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, hugged her aunt Monday, April 1, after the Senate approved a bill that would increase the fee on opioid manufacturers and distributors to fund opioid addiction education and treatment programs. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Senate approved a bill that would hike fees for opioid painkiller manufacturers and distributors to help combat the state's opioid crisis.

The Senate on a 59-6 vote advanced House Bill 400 on Monday, April 1, setting up negotiations between the Senate and House of Representatives. The House passed a similar bill last month. Now, lawmakers will have to iron out a version to which both chambers can agree.

Under both versions, opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors that operate in the state would face steeper licensing fees to fund the $20 million a year in addiction treatment, prevention and drug intervention by law enforcement.

The Senate bill differed from the House's proposal as it required state general fund dollars to help law enforcement agencies seek out and seize illegal opioids trafficked in Minnesota and could end the fees if the state reached a settlement with the opioid manufacturing companies.

"The goal is to provide some relief and make everybody accountable," the bill's author Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said. "It is a leap of faith."

The bill's advance comes after failed efforts to get the proposal through the Legislature. And it struck a particularly personal note for one of the bill's authors.

Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, noted that Monday would've marked her daughter Ariel's 35th birthday. Ariel died of a heroin overdose in 2007. Eaton also named several others who'd died of opioid overdoses and said the state needed to do more to offer addiction treatment programs to prevent additional deaths.

“There’s too many to name, unfortunately, but they’re all here in my heart," Eaton said. “The heartbreak is indescribable having been there myself.

The bill's opponents said the accountability of drug makers in the opioid epidemic should be handled in the courts and said those companies were being asked to take the financial penalty when others were involved in prescribing the medications.

"Doctors aren't accountable for any of this," Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said. “I hope at some point the prescriber community has some skin in the game for the mess that we’re in."

Two doctors in the chamber, Sens. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, and Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said the medical community bore some responsibility for the opioid epidemic but had taken steps to reduce opioid prescriptions.

“We were wrong," Klein said. "Prescribers know that and we have owned it.”

Hunter Hawes, 30, said he'd lost four friends in 2018 to opioid overdose deaths, and on the campaign trail and in the Capitol urged lawmakers to come up with solutions. He cheered from the Senate gallery as lawmakers passed the bill.

"I feel like leaders aren't talking to people on the front lines about this," Hawes said. "So having an advisory council is going to be huge."

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday told reporters that he's open to the Senate bill and hopes to get a compromise bill signed into law soon.

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