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Opponents say Cuomo's opioid tax will cost patients

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to impose a tax on manufacturers of prescription opioids to help pay for state programs that assist people who are addicted to them. But some say it will be patients who ultimately will have to pay the price.

Cuomo laid out the opioid tax proposal in his state budget address nearly two months ago, saying it’s only fair that the makers of the pain pills shoulder some of the financial burden of treating people who became addicted to the medicines.

“Opioid manufacturers have created an epidemic. We would have an opioid surcharge; 2 cents per milligram will be paid by the manufacturer and would go to offset the costs that we're spending to fight opioid abuse,” Cuomo said on Jan. 16.

The proposal would charge the drug makers two cents per what is known as a morphine milligram equivalent. It would go into a new fund to help subsidize treatment costs, which Cuomo estimates are more than $170 million a year.

The governor’s budget director, Robert Mujica, said it’s hoped the tax also would discourage the use of the highly addictive drugs.

“Similar to a tax on cigarettes,” Mujica said. “Ideally, if it gets too expensive to use those drugs, perhaps they’ll move on to other, less addictive drugs.”

But Mujica said patients won’t have to pay for it.

“The manufacturers will likely have to eat it,” he said.

But the lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry said that’s not likely. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, commissioned a study that found the tax would actually lead to higher insurance and medical costs for New Yorkers.

Bill Hammond, a health policy analyst with the fiscal watchdog group the Empire Center, agreed that the tax would likely be passed on to patients who need the drugs, including terminally ill people and patients with chronic conditions, as well as addicts who are sometimes prescribed medicines that contain a form of opioid.

“This is a way of closing the budget gap,” Hammond said. “And it’s a convenient target.”

New York faces a nearly $4 billion budget shortfall.

Hammond said in addition, the surcharge on opioids would result in New York state essentially taxing itself. One-third of all New Yorkers are on a state-funded Medicaid-related program for their health care.

“And, as a result of that, it buys a lot of the opioids,” Hammond said. “If you tax opioids and you make them more expensive, it’s the state that’s going to end up paying a third or more of the tax.”

He said the state would pay about $40 million of the estimated $125 million a year that the new tax would bring in. Hammond said it’s unlikely that the federal government, which splits most Medicaid costs with the state, would help pay for the tax.

Both the state Senate and Assembly are due to release their budget plans later this week. Senate Leader John Flanagan already has said he’s against including any new taxes in the budget.

The state Assembly has not ruled out the tax. The state budget is due in about three weeks.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.