Fee on drug companies would fund addiction treatment

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley is proposing a fee on opioid manufacturers that would boost funding for addiction treatment by $2 billion per year.

The Opioid Treatment Surge Act would boost federal funding from $20.8 million to $44 million for Oregon, with the money coming through the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant program.

Merkley said too many people have grown addicted to opioids and overdosed.

Opioids include prescription pain pills such as OxyContin as well as illegal drugs such as heroin.

“Drug companies jeopardized the health of every community in America when they flooded the streets with opioids to generate massive profits,” Merkley said. “They intentionally downplayed the addictiveness of opioid drugs and put millions of lives at risk. We need greater treatment resources across the nation, and it’s time for the drug companies to take responsibility for their role in creating this crisis, by paying to treat the addictions they created.”

Substance abuse treatment providers need more funding to keep up with rising rates of drug use and addiction, said Dr. Alan Ledford, executive director of the Medford-based addiction treatment provider OnTrack.

Ledford said there are already precedents for taxes, fines and settlements against companies that manufacture harmful products.

“We’ve had other public health crises where we’ve put taxes or fees on other substances — notably on cigarettes and alcohol. Some of the funding goes to treatment,” he said. “So I think it is an idea worth thinking about, because there is a public health crisis with opioids in this country at this point.”

Ledford said opioid manufacturers downplayed the risk of addiction and aggressively marketed their prescription drugs to doctors.

“It doesn’t make sense when you have a highly addictive substance and somebody’s saying, ‘Oh, it’s not highly addictive,’” he said of the companies’ marketing tactics.

Prescription opioids are chemically related to opium and heroin.

Opioid drug companies have already been hit with multimillion-dollar government fines and court settlements.

Merkley said the companies need to pay much more to address the problem they helped create.

“That’s just scratching the surface,” he said of the fines and settlements so far, noting many are being appealed.

The fee on opioid manufacturers would apply retroactively from the date the bill passes back to 1999, the year the opioid crisis began building, according to Merkley’s office.

The companies that manufactured the most opioids would pay the highest portion of the annual fee.

They would not be charged for opioid sales to cancer and hospice patients, or for opioids they sold to battle addiction. Opioid medications like methadone can counter the painful symptoms of withdrawal — called dopesick — and curb cravings without producing a high.

Ledford said the retroactive fee could have the unintended consequence of driving up prescription costs.

Opioid pain pills are already costly, with a one-month supply of low-dose generic OxyContin costing about $200 on average, according to GoodRx, which tracks drug costs.

The average cost of a one-month supply of high-dose, name brand OxyContin can cost nearly $1,770, GoodRx reported.

“I always worry about the cost of drugs, period, because people have to pay a lot for medication,” Ledford said. “If it increases the cost, particularly for medications, that’s a downside. Manufacturers will pass that increase along.”

Merkley said he doesn’t believe the fee would significantly impact prescription prices because drug company profits are so high they could absorb the cost.

He has introduced a separate bill that would rein in American prescription costs by pegging prices to those in Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan, where governments negotiate with drug companies over prices.

Merkley acknowledged his bill to impose an addiction treatment fee on drug makers faces an uphill battle. He introduced the bill in 2018, but it languished, prompting him to reintroduce the bill this week.

“The reason we have this horrendous situation with drug manufacturers is because they spend enormous sums in campaigns. So elected individuals are very reluctant to take on drug manufacturers,” he said.

Merkley said he will need the support of other members of Congress and President Donald Trump for the bill to go into law.

But Merkley said he is determined to keep fighting the opioid epidemic.

“It’s been a real blight on our community, and we need to come together and take it on — in every possible way,” he said.

A spokesperson for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said the group was still reviewing Merkley’s proposed legislation and didn’t yet have a comment.