BOSTON — Opioid makers could be forced to pay millions of dollars in annual taxes to help cover the cost of state-funded drug treatment.
Gov. Charlie Baker wants to slap a 15% tax on the overall sales of opioid manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma, as part of his preliminary budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Supporters of the tax say the companies helped create an epidemic when they flooded the market with highly addictive drugs, and they should be forced to help pay for treatment and prevention.
"The time has come to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable for the past and help fund long-term recovery in the future," said John Rosenthal, co-founder and chairman of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, a group that works with law enforcement to help reduce opioid addiction.
If it wins lawmakers' approval, the tax would help pay for more beds in treatment centers, as well as spots in recovery and prevention programs.
It wouldn't apply to opioid distributors, and inpatient treatment and medication-assisted treatment would be exempt from the levy.
Pain management groups say the move will hurt patients with legitimate medical issues by driving up the cost of their medicines.
"Prescribing is way down, by about 40% nationally, and only the sickest and most severe patients can get opioids now," said Cindy Steinberg, policy director for the Massachusetts Pain Initiative, an advocacy group. "So I'm afraid that a tax would fall on only the sickest patients, who can ill-afford it."
Steinberg pointed out that Baker's proposal wouldn't divert any money to help patients with pain management issues.
Baker has filed similar proposals in the past, but the Legislature hasn't taken up the measures.
Overall, Baker's preliminary $45.6 billion budget calls for increasing spending on substance abuse treatment and prevention by $22.1 million, to $353 million.
For many, opioid addiction has its roots in prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin, which led them to street-bought heroin and fentanyl once those prescriptions ran out.
Opioids killed more than 1,500 people in Massachusetts during the first nine months of 2020, a 2% increase from the same period a year earlier, according to the latest data from the state Department of Public Health.
More than 10,000 people have died from opioid-related overdoses in the state in the past five years.
States, counties and cities have filed more than 1,000 opioid-related lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. Some states have settled, while others, including a case filed by Attorney General Maura Healey, are still in litigation.
The rise in opioid deaths comes as the state battles another public health crisis, the COVID-19 outbreak, which has killed more than 14,200 people in Massachusetts.
In 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker and lawmakers pushed through a raft of rules aimed at curbing over-prescribing of opioids. Those included a cap on new opioid prescriptions written in any seven-day period.
Pain management groups say the restrictions have deprived patients with legitimate medical issues of their medicines.
"They can't even get care now because doctors don't want to treat people with opioids," Steinberg said.
If Baker's proposal advances, it would likely face a legal challenge from pharmaceutical companies who say the move would result in higher prices for consumers.
Similar proposals, in New York and other states, have been overturned by the courts.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.