Advocates at the state capitol Tuesday seeking more state help in dealing with the growing opioid problem made compelling arguments for the state to invest more in treatment and recovery programs for addicts and their families.
But the group’s idea for imposing a one-cent-per-milligram excise tax on prescription medication would only help drive up prescription costs and provide a hardship on many people who require the drugs to address legitimate health problems.
In considering all the ideas on how to address the opioid abuse problem, lawmakers should reject the idea of a new tax on medication.
Opioid abuse is certainly a large and growing problem in New York. According to a report issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January, New York ranked fifth in the country in opioid drug overdose deaths in 2015 — 2,754. The 2015 rate was a 20.4 percent increase over 2014.
But New York has taken significant steps recently to address the problem.
Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a comprehensive package of bills to fight the problem. Included in it were measures to lift some restrictions on insurance coverage for treatment and to mandate coverage for overdose-reversal medications; expanding the availability of treatment for short- and long-term problems and to require follow-up treatment from hospitals; limiting how much opioids doctors could prescribe; and providing more education on prevention.
The state also allocated nearly $200 million in the 2016-17 budget for programs and services, including more money for treatment beds, counseling and support services, treatment centers and detox programs. And both the governor and the Legislature have committees set up that continue to address the problem.
But a specific tax on prescription medication goes too far.
Supporters of the tax say it would be comparable to the tax on tobacco products, which is supposed to be directed to programs designed fight the diseases caused by the products.
But tobacco and opioids are not comparable. Unlike pain medications, tobacco products have no health benefit; they are potentially unhealthy to everyone who uses them. Therefore, it’s reasonable to ask all purchasers of these products to pay a tax to support the health programs and initiatives related to the products’ use.
But opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin are only harmful when they are abused. Is it fair to add an across-the-board tax to the already high price of prescription drugs for the sick and elderly because some people abuse the drugs?
Should every patient in New York be punished financially because doctors overprescribe the medication and because the government has been slow to react to the problem?
And should someone who legally uses prescription medication for its intended purpose be singled out for a tax to pay for the treatment for someone who abuses an illegal substance like heroin?
New York needs to address the opioid epidemic, and the state is doing that.
Stressing vulnerable New Yorkers with another tax should not be part of that effort.