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Walz discusses opioid crisis with drug company officials

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said a conference call with drug company executives Tuesday left him hopeful that the Legislature will pass a bill he can sign to address the opioid crisis.

Walz told reporters that he spoke with “a large number” of officials from major opioid manufacturers and distributors in hopes of avoiding the kind of “lobbying blitz” that derailed efforts last session to reduce the impacts of opioid abuse in Minnesota.

The governor said he made it clear that he expects “meaningful legislation” to reach his desk that will provide a funding source and a plan to start reducing the impact of opioids in Minnesota.

He said he wanted to discuss the role the companies could play in finding agreement. He said they agreed on the need to reduce addiction and to keep the drugs out of the hands of the wrong people.

“My message was, I want these manufacturers to be partners with us,” he said. “I want them to help be constructive in their dialogue over the next few weeks as these pieces of legislation move, and my hope is that we can find an equitable position that … gets where our shared goals are.”

A bill to sharply hike registration fees on drug companies that do business in Minnesota to raise $20 million annually has begun moving through legislative committees with bipartisan support.

It’s a different approach from the “penny a pill” tax that passed the Senate last year but stalled out in the House amid industry opposition. The money would fund prevention, treatment and education programs, and support child protection agencies that have been swamped by the crisis.

More than 400 people died of opioid overdoses in Minnesota in 2017, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Walz said that while he didn’t get specific assurances of cooperation, he made it clear it’s in the companies’ best interests to engage constructively in shaping the legislation.

He said the officials expressed concerns back about making it harder for people who need these drugs to get them and about raising costs for patients.

“They understand something needs to be done,” he said. “They understand that they need to be part of the solution.”

The governor declined to say who specifically was on the 45-minute call, though he said participants included vice presidents, not CEOs.

But the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also known as PhRMA, was represented on the call, said Nick McGee, the trade group’s director of public affairs. PhRMA opposed last year’s bill.

“We appreciate the opportunity to continue our dialogue with the governor about how everyone, including manufacturers, prescribers, distributors, health plans, and law enforcement can work with his administration to deliver real solutions to this complex public health crisis,” McGee wrote in an email.

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