Bill creating fee on opioids clears first hurdle

DOVER — Legislation that would create an opioid fee passed out of committee Wednesday, although it will likely be amended to deal with concerns raised by the Department of Health and Social Services and others before receiving a floor vote.

Senate Bill 176 would establish a fee on opioids of 1 cent per morphine milligram, paid by manufacturers. The measure was debated for about an hour in the Senate Health, Children & Social Services Committee and ultimately was released to the full Senate.

Advocates urged lawmakers to support the proposal, saying it would save lives by giving the state more tools to combat drug addiction, which claimed the lives of 306 people in Delaware in 2016. A majority of those deaths were due to opioids.

Sen. Stephanie Hansen, a Middletown Democrat who is the main sponsor of Senate Bill 176, made an impassioned plea for her colleagues to back the legislation, insisting lawmakers hold “Big Pharma” accountable and do more to help Delawareans.

“Everybody here is paying for this already. You are already paying,” she said. “You are paying through your health insurance, No. 1 or your plan, and the cost of that health insurance. You are paying through your taxes, with all the programs we are currently running at DHSS, through our criminal justice system.

“You are paying when your car gets broken into and you go out in to the morning and your CD player, everything you have in there, is stolen because the person who has broken in there is feeding a habit that they have.

“You are paying in anguish, in family anguish and the lives of our children, of our parents. Grandparents are dying as a result. The only folks that are not continuing to pay as this ramps up are the ones that are actually fueling the fire. That’s why this is so important.”

According to a legislative estimate, the bill would generate around $8.6 million in the first year.

The measure states companies cannot pass the cost along to consumers and would give the Delaware Department of Justice the authority “to recover direct economic damages resulting from a violation.”

But despite the strong support from some advocates, several state agencies and industry representatives expressed concerns about certain aspects of the bill.

Deputy Health & Social Services Secretary Molly Magarik said the measure would lead to additional work DHSS may not be currently equipped to handle and could result in higher costs for consumers despite the intent of the bill. Finance Secretary Rick Geisenberger, meanwhile, noted a poorly written proposal could lead to expensive lawsuits against the state and create new headaches.

Gov. John Carney’s office also has some concerns with the language of the bill and the exact impact the legislation would have.

Representatives of opioid manufacturers agreed the proposal could hurt patients and expressed a desire to work with the state in other ways to fight the epidemic.

“Opioids offer life-enhancing and therapeutic benefits for those with various conditions like chronic pain, acute postsurgical pain and painful conditions like cancer that, when misused and abused, can result in devastating and life-threatening consequences,” Sharon Brigner, deputy vice president of state advocacy at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, told the committee.

“This legislation would impose a tax that would unfairly target the pharmaceutical manufacturers as the only stakeholder in the supply chain responsible for funding programs to treat and prevent drug abuse, and it will detract from our ability to focus on our mission, which is to invest in future research and development in … medicines like non-opioid alternatives. In addition, we strongly believe that no medicine should ever be taxed that patients need.”

Money collected by the bill would go to a special fund to be overseen by the Department of Health and Social Services, with the Behavioral Health Consortium and Addiction Action Committee offering recommendations on how exactly revenue should be spent.

Those dollars could be used for starting treatment programs, purchasing a medication that can counteract the effects of an overdose, reimbursing state Medicaid spending on drug addiction, assisting addicts without health insurance and covering administrative costs.

Under the measure, a 10-milligram oxycodone pill, for instance, would require the manufacturer to pay an extra 15 cents to the state.

Some people believe pharmaceutical companies covered up the risks of opioids, intentionally overprescribing without regard to the potential consequences.

“Opioid manufacturers misrepresented the addictive nature of their products,” Attorney General Matt Denn said in a January statement.

“They, along with national opioid distributors and national pharmacies, knew that they were shipping quantities of opioids around the country so enormous that they could not possibly all be for legitimate medical purposes, but they failed to take basic steps to ensure that those drugs were going only to legitimate patients.

“These companies ignored red flags that opioids were being diverted from legitimate channels of distribution and use to illicit channels. The failure of these corporate defendants to meet their legal obligations has had a devastating impact on Delawareans.”

Manufacturers have denied the claims.

In recent years, governments have begun taking steps to fight substance abuse by focusing on treating and preventing it rather than punishing addicts. They have also, in some cases, gone after major drug companies.

Dover City Council in February announced it was filing a lawsuit against Big Pharma, one month after the Delaware Department of Justice said it would sue drug manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.

Other states have attempted to create new taxes or fees on opioid medications, with New York recently enacting a budget that contains fees for opioid distributors and manufacturers.

According to the Department of Justice, there are more than 50 opioid pills in Delaware for every person.

“The statistics of the cost are clear in dollars and cents. They’re even more clear in the cost of human lives that the crisis has cost families in Delaware and the nation,” Dave Humes, a board member of atTAcK addiction, said Wednesday.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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