Lawmakers in Kentucky are weighing whether to impose a new tax on opioid prescriptions, the latest effort in a string of so-far failed attempts to pull new revenue from the painkillers that helped seed a nationwide addiction crisis.
The proposed tax — a 25-cent levy on drug distributors for every dose sent to the state — was approved by the Kentucky House Thursday as part of a broader budget and tax plan. But unlike in other states, where lawmakers aimed to steer the new revenue to addiction treatment and education programs, the Kentucky plan, if enacted, would direct the money to fill budget gaps elsewhere, including boosting funding for the state’s public schools.
Still, the measure’s backers said that it could decrease the amount of pills coming into the state, which is among the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.
“We hope that pain pills will quit being dumped into this state at the level that they are,” said state Rep. Steven Rudy, a Republican who leads the House’s budget committee, according to WKYT.
The tax plan also includes an increase in the cigarette tax.
Around the country, state and local officials have been ramping up their attacks on the players involved in supplying painkillers to people, from drug makers to pharmacy benefit managers to drug distributors. Dozens of cities, counties, and states have sued such companies, alleging that they flooded communities with painkillers that laid the groundwork for the addiction crisis, even as nonprescription opioids like heroin and illicit fentanyl are increasingly responsible for overdoses.
But no state has enacted a specific tax on prescription painkillers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, despite plans being introduced in a dozen states. Some of the proposals, including those in California, Iowa, and New York, are still under consideration.
Some of the plans stipulated that at least some of the revenue raised would go to fighting addiction. Bills in Alaska, Tennessee, Minnesota, and other states, for example, would or would have created treatment and education programs and funded drug courts.
A 2017 bill in Kentucky would have also created a new opioid tax — funding, among other initiatives, treatment programs for babies born dependent on opioids — but it failed to pass, according to the NCSL.
Critics of such measures, including industry trade associations, have called them regressive and warned that they could force patients to go without their medications. In a statement Thursday, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, which represents drug distributors, said that “if a regressive tax is imposed on any product, particularly a healthcare product, it will limit the ability for legitimate patients to access the medicines they require for the treatment of chronic pain or palliative care.”
The Kentucky tax plan now moves to the state Senate, where it could be changed or rejected.