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Minnesota Senate passes $20 million opioid bill

Three Democratic Minnesota state senators sit in the back of the state House chamber Thursday, May 10, 2018, during a vote for a University of Minnesota regent. From left are Kent Eken of Twin Valley, Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis and Erik Simonson of Duluth. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Rose Freiberg, 8, plays a game on her telephone Thursday, May 10, 2018, while her father, Rep. Mike Freiberg of Golden Valley, and other lawmakers wait to vote for a University of Minnesota regent. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is a step closer to raising revenue from pharmaceutical companies to fund addiction treatment and prevention to address the state’s  opioid crisis.

With a 60-6 vote the Minnesota Senate overwhelmingly approved an opioid stewardship bill Thursday, May 10. The legislation would raise $20 million a year from licensing fees on drug manufacturers and distributors to help communities, addicts and their children deal with the fallout from the crisis.

"We cannot continue to go at this pace," Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said about an epidemic of deaths due to opioid abuse. "We are losing people daily."

Opioids killed 395 Minnesotans in 2016 and those numbers are expected to rise.

It is one of the major bills in the Legislature this year, and one that especially rural Minnesotans say is at the top of their priority lists.

It is not clear what will happen with the House's version of the bill in this legislative session's waning days.

Rosen blamed the problem on companies that make opioids, which decades ago were marketed as safe and strong ways to control pain. The claims have been questioned in recent years; they are addictive and hundreds of Minnesotans die each year because of opioid abuse.

"I do not see any accountability coming from the pharmaceutical companies and the distributors," Rosen said before her colleagues agreed with her to provide funds to improve treatment and to limit opioid prescriptions.

Rosen acknowledged that drug makers are putting pressure on lawmakers to reject her bill and the House measure written by Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar.

Both sponsors, along with Gov. Mark Dayton, started this legislative session with proposals calling for a fee of a penny for each opioid pill. Baker and Rosen changed their funding mechanism.

Rosen was angry that drug makers refused to negotiate with lawmakers over opioid funding. "I find it a little offensive," she said.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, joined Rosen in saying drug makers were not honest. He said opioids "are neither safe nor effective," the exact opposite of how the companies sold the drugs.

Rosen was even stronger: "They flat-out lied to prescribers that this wasn't addictive."

Besides the "licensing fee" that would be applied to drug makers, Rosen's bill encourages doctors and others who prescribe opioids to limit themselves. The measure allows prescriptions soon after surgery and at some other times, often with a seven-day prescription limit.

"We do know there has been over prescribing," she said.  "We will keep the medical community in check with this."

The debate was emotional, especially for Sen. Chris Eaton, D-Brooklyn Center, whose daughter died of opioid abuse.

“It happens to everyone,” Eaton said. “It happens in all walks of life. It happens to the rich. It happens to the poor. It happens to the African American. It happens to the Native American. We need to fight this.

"This bill has been a labor of love and grief," she said.

Ultrasound offer required

Minnesota doctors would be required to tell women they can view a fetus ultrasound before an abortion under legislation that has passed the House and Senate.

The House passed the bill 79-48 Thursday, after a similar bill passed the Senate 37-30 last week.

Bill sponsor Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Ramsey, said the bill does not require an ultrasound to be taken, but if one is the woman must be given the chance to see it.

"Providing women full access to accurate medical information before an abortion is performed will empower them to make the best decisions," Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said. "I am hopeful this reform will help women avoid regretful abortions and give more unborn children a chance at the lives they deserve."

Worthington man new U regent

A Worthington businessman is the new University of Minnesota regent.

A joint House-Senate session Thursday elected Randy Simonson to the university's governing board with 104 out of 191 votes. He immediately takes over for Dr. Patricia Simmons of Rochester, who resigned in March. Simonson will fill the remainder of her term, which ends in 2021.

Simmons was one of just three women on the 12-person board and the only medical doctor.

She made a late bid for a rare third term in 2015 because she wanted to ensure the board had a member with medical experience. When she announced in March that she was quitting, Simmons said she hoped the Legislature would replace her with another physician.

Choosing from five applicants, the joint higher education committee on Monday forwarded two names to the full Legislature: Mayo Clinic cardiologist Brooks Edwards and Mary Davenport, interim president of Rochester Community and Technical College and a longtime administrator in the Minnesota State college and university system.

Instead, Republicans largely rallied behind Simonson on Thursday.

Some Democrats said they feared that Simonson would favor closing a university campus after he said that might need to be considered. However, Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, and Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, the chairmen of the Legislature's higher education committees, said they took the comment only to mean that must be part of discussion in a budget crunch.

"It was a hypothetical thing," Nornes said.

Nornes said Simonson, who was not in the Capitol during the vote, will work well with other regents.

Simonson joins a board with just two women, Linda Cohen and Peggy Lucas, whose terms expire next year along with those of Dean Johnson and Abdul Omari.

Jensen acknowledged there’s “quite a bit of discomfort” about the board’s gender composition.

Jensen said the presence of a Mayo Clinic doctor would have benefited the U.

The U’s medical school has tumbled in national rankings in recent years, and its M Health partnership with Fairview Health Services, which owns the Twin Cities campus hospital, is set to end at the end of the month.

Simonson, who will represent southern Minnesota's 1st Congressional District on the board, received a veterinary microbiology doctorate from the university in 2001. Two of his three children also are graduates from there.

"The university is a big part of my life," Simonson said. "I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the education and mentoring I received from the University of Minnesota."

He is director of Prairie Holdings Group and CEO of Cambridge Technologies in Worthington.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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