As Minnesota lawmakers prepared to push a proposed tax on opioid sales in November, pharmaceutical industry lobbyists who opposed the bill set up a meeting with its sponsors, and they brought an unusual guest: Jessica Hulsey Nickel, a prominent anti-addiction advocate in Washington, D.C., the New York Times reports. Nickel told the lawmakers that she took no position on the tax and was offering her group’s resources to help fight the state’s drug epidemic. Her presence with five representatives from the industry’s trade group raised eyebrows among Minnesota legislators who believed that drug companies needed to be held accountable for the prescription opioid crisis, not embraced as an ally.
“She was insisting that she was totally independent and they hadn’t put any strings on her,” said State Senator Chris Eaton, one of the bill’s sponsors. “I wasn’t buying it.” Nickel’s advocacy group, the Addiction Policy Forum, said later that it had accepted funding from the trade group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). The group’s Stephen Ubl said it was in the “tens of millions,” over multiple years, a large influx for a nonprofit whose annual donations and grants totaled $4.7 million last year. Nickel says her group is not beholden to PhRMA in any way. The drug industry, she said, should be viewed as a partner, not an adversary. She said the funding would help her group provide services like an online resource center for patients struggling with addiction and training for doctors treating overdoses. “You cannot hold an organization accountable if they are paying your bills,” said Lexi Reed Holtum of the Steve Rummler HOPE Network, which advocates on addiction issues in Minnesota. Holtum said she respected Ms. Nickel’s intentions but worried about the risks of teaming up with an industry with a self-serving agenda.