Two Democratic Vermont senators are putting together a proposal for a tax on prescription opioids. The proceeds would be used to bolster substance abuse intervention, treatment and recovery efforts, many of which are short-funded or are facing declines in current revenues.
Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), chair of the Health and Welfare Committee, outlined the idea in a Friday morning committee hearing, which also featured testimony on how the proceeds of a tax might best be used.
Ayer said that she and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) happened upon the idea in Governing magazine, which examined how states are trying to fund substance abuse programs. According to legislative fiscal analyst Nolan Langweil, several other states have considered an opiate tax, but none has enacted one.
The idea is still in development. Ayer and Ashe haven't settled on a tax rate, or even on how it would be levied. Prescription opiates could be taxed per pill, per dosage, or per "morphine milligram equivalents," a standard measure of a drug's potency. The tax would likely not apply to prescriptions for chronic pain. Also unresolved is where the tax would be collected: from manufacturers, distributors, or at the point of sale.
Ayer fully realizes that the proposal flies in the face of Gov. Phil Scott's opposition to new taxes or fees.
"He's drawn a very hard line, and we have very hard surfaces," she said. "We have very difficult situations to be addressed ... He will have to make a decision whether [to approve] something that's a reasonable way to fund the consequences of using opiates with a tax on opiates."
Witnesses called before Ayer's committee described a system that's overburdened, underfunded and inadequate to provide a robust response to Vermont's opioid epidemic. "In our treatment system, there are a lot of places in need and I'm not seeing solutions," said Bob Bick, CEO of the Howard Center in Burlington. He said that Vermont has built "an important national model for intervention, but the financing of that model is at risk."
As an example, he cited the state's drug court programs, which are designed to decriminalize those with substance abuse problems — getting them into treatment instead of behind bars. "The programs are federally funded, and the money will run out in nine months," he noted.
The tax idea is in its formative stages and an actual bill has yet to be written, but it appears to be on a fast track in the Senate. "We've already spoken with the chairs of the Appropriations and Finance committees," said Ayer.
Indeed, Finance chair Ann Cummings (D-Washington) sits on the Health and Welfare Committee and said she has a mechanism in mind to speed the concept along. "I have a House bill that does talk about taxes," she said, indicating that it was a relatively minor bill that's been awaiting action since last year. That would allow the House and Senate to act on an opioids tax, even though it's too late to introduce new legislation this session.
Gov. Phil Scott's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here: sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.