Governor mum on whether he’ll sign bill taxing opioids

DOVER — Legislation establishing a tax on opioids is awaiting action from Gov. John Carney after the bill passed the House Thursday.

The measure, Senate Bill 34, would create a fee of 1 cent per morphine milligram equivalent for brand-name opioid medications and one-quarter cent per mme for generics.

Under the legislation, a 10mg pill of oxycodone would cost an extra 15 (brand-name) or 4 cents (generic).

It’s estimated the surcharge would generate in the upcoming fiscal year about $2.8 million, money could be used for various addiction-related services such as sober living facilities, medication like naloxone that can reverse the effects of an overdose and care for addicts without health insurance.

The bill does not apply to opioids administered in hospitals, used to treat addiction, provided directly to patients by a hospice or dispensed by veterinarians.

“The idea here is to start to call into some accountability for the pharmaceutical companies whose products played a role in getting us here,” Rep. David Bentz, a Christiana Democrat who is the prime House sponsor, said Thursday. “By no means pointing the finger and saying this is entirely up to the pharmaceutical companies, but their products certainly played a role, and right now the taxpayers of Delaware are almost entirely responsible for funding all of our efforts to combat the negative impacts that these products helped unleash on society.”

It is not yet known whether Gov. Carney, a Democrat, will sign the bill. A spokesman for the governor said only that legal and policy staff are reviewing it.

According to the Department of Health and Social Services, 419 people fatally overdosed last year, up from 345 the year prior. Not all of those deaths were from opioids, but the epidemic has hit Delaware hard: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked Delaware sixth in the country in overdose mortality rate in 2017.

Division of Public Health Director Karyl Rattay told Congress earlier this month while nearly all the state’s overdose deaths in 2009 were from prescription drugs, more than 70 percent of fatal overdoses last year stemmed from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

Sadly, the problem is not restricted to the First State or even the region, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimating about 47,600 people died from opioid misuse in 2017 while millions more battled addiction.

But some lawmakers Thursday argued the bill would lead to higher drug prices and wouldn’t have the impact backers expect.

The bill “reflects that there has been a decrease since 2015 in prescriptions, which clearly indicate the pathway we’ve taken on many things in Delaware and our efforts are starting to work and that should be part of our focus,” said Rep. Ruth Briggs King, a Georgetown Republican.

“As many of you know, I have been very engaged and informed on this issue, taking the lead on many things. But I could not sponsor this legislation when it was initially introduced because I felt it was going to place the burden upon those who are in most debilitating conditions with chronic pain, that it was a little like closing the gate after the cows had left the pasture.”

Alex Brill, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning thinktank, agreed and noted Delaware might receive money from a future settlement with Big Pharma. The Delaware Department of Justice has filed several lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, most recently earlier this month.

Unlike with a fee, a dip in profits caused by a settlement would likely not be passed on to consumers, he told the House.

“That can be considered a penalty for past behavior,” Mr. Brill said.

Rep. Bentz replied he did not want to wait for a “lottery ticket” in the forms of a settlement, urging his colleagues to support more funding now.

The House approved the proposal 33-8 one month after the Senate voted 17-4 to pass it. All opposition came from Republicans.

Schedule

Just six weeks are left in this year’s legislative session, which has its last regularly scheduled day June 30.

While some members of the General Assembly would surely love to use the next two weeks, during which the legislature is on break, to try to relax a little bit before the craziness that is June, it’s not time for a vacation just yet.

Lawmakers will spend much of the rest of May preparing for the final month, which typically includes a scramble as June 30 approaches. Still pending are a variety of important and closely watched bills, including the operating and capital budgets.

The Joint Finance Committee begins meeting Tuesday to make changes to Gov. Carney’s January budget recommendations. Revenue projections have increased since then, giving the committee a little extra money to play with.

JFC is scheduled to meet for six days before the month concludes, and by the time the committee is done, the budget should be close to finished, although some things will remain in limbo for a bit longer.

Gun storage

When the full legislature returns on June 4, representatives will have a gun bill in their sights. Legislation expanding the crime of unlawfully permitting a minor access to a firearm to cover general unsafe storage of a firearm will be debated in June, the main sponsor posted on Facebook Friday.

“We WILL take action to protect Delawareans from the dangers of firearms falling into the hands of children, criminals and those who cannot possess them because of a disqualifying mental health condition,” wrote that sponsor, Rep. Sean Lynn, a Dover Democrat.

The bill passed the House in March but was amended by the Senate last month, sending it back to the first chamber. Much to the chagrin of House Democrats, the amendment effectively weakens the bill by placing a greater burden of proof on the state.

House and Senate Democrats clashed over the amendment after the Senate passed the bill in its altered form, with Rep. Lynn saying he was unsure what his next step would be. Rep. Lynn, who did not return a phone call requesting comment Friday, could attempt to remove the amendment entirely, add a new compromise amendment or simply pass the bill as is.

While it’s unknown what he will do, a recent decision by some senators could provide a hint. The top two members of the Senate Democratic caucus blocked several controversial gun bills in committee earlier this month, saying their caucus does not support a floor vote.

Should the House make any further changes to the safe storage bill, the proposal would have to go back to the Senate, where the lack of appetite some Democrats have for gun control means leadership might opt not to even bring the safe storage bill up for a vote.

The dynamic in the Senate Democratic caucus is worth watching for the rest of this year’s session, by the way. Whether the fracture exposed by the gun bills grows or shrinks could greatly influence how things progress over the next six weeks.

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

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