Gov. Walz, lawmakers introduce compromise bill to boost affordable insulin access

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Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota House Democrats put the long-running dispute over insulin affordability back in the spotlight Thursday by unveiling a bill less than two weeks before the 2020 session that they said combines the best of Democratic and Republican proposals.

Negotiators with the House Democratic and Senate GOP majorities spent months talking about a possible compromise bill they might have passed in special session last year, but were unable to reach an agreement. The thorniest dispute was over how much insulin manufacturers should have to pay. The impasse appears likely to extend into the 2020 session, which opens Feb. 11.

Thursday at the Capitol, Gov. Tim Walz, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, DFL leaders and others discussed ways to increase access to affordable insulin.

"Our goal is that we are not just putting a band-aid on the problem and giving them a short term supply of insulin. We're connecting them to a reliable, stable supply of affordable insulin," said Sen. Eric Pratt of Prior Lake to a KSTP reporter.

"Every one of these areas where we face a divide, Republicans are siding with insulin manufacturers instead of Minnesotans," said Rep. Michael Howard, of Richfield, one of the leading Democratic negotiators.

The new bill's proposal includes a three-month supply for $30 a month.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said the bill will be fast-tracked in her chamber, though she wouldn't estimate exactly how long that will take. "But what would be great would be to have Republicans come to the table and reach a deal with us," she said.

The chief author of the Senate GOP proposal, Sen. Pratt, disputed that Republicans are to blame for preventing a deal.

"It seems like we've gone back to our political corners, and I can't see how that's helpful in getting Minnesotans access to affordable insulin," Pratt said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Pratt said Senate Republicans will offer their own bill, and that both he and Majority Leader Paul Gazelka "feel a sense of urgency to get this done." One reason for the impasse, he said, is that Democrats seem bent on punishing the insulin manufacturers.

"We could have an agreement if we could agree that it was going to be a shared cost between the state and the manufactures and not just rely on manufacturers to pay for the whole thing," he said.

Both sides of the aisle have been working on this issue for months.

The House bill targets patients who fall through the cracks because they lack insurance, are on high-deductible plans or are caught in the Medicare "doughnut hole."

Walz calls for action on insulin affordability

The price of insulin has even led some people to leave the state for a solution. Prices paid by individual patients vary widely depending on their insurance coverage. Type 1 diabetic Annette Gentile told the news conference her insulin costs are over $900 per month, forcing her to make difficult decisions, such as rationing her insulin or skipping other medications.

"This vial of insulin cost me $340; if I get it filled, retail price, when I cross the Canadian border, the exact same vile … cost me $26," Quinn Nystrom said.

Walz calls for public hearings to break insulin impasse

Legislation pre-filed Thursday, called the Alec Smith Insulin Affordability Act, seeks to implement an option for an immediate refill for those most in danger of rationing their insulin due to the drug's high cost.

The bill was named after Alec Smith, a 26-year-old uninsured Minneapolis man who died in 2017 of diabetic complications because he was rationing his insulin because he couldn't afford the $1,300 a month for the drug and related supplies.

At least two Minnesotans and probably more have died since him due to the high cost of insulin, his mother, Nicole Smith-Holt, said at the news conference.

"We cannot continue to sit by and wait. Each and every day that we delay taking action puts another Minnesotan's life at risk," Smith-Holt said.

The legislation builds upon a bill proposed last session by including a provision to create a longterm program for eligible Minnesotans to access free insulin.

"The cost of insulin is literally pricing Minnesotans out of their lives – it is immoral and unacceptable – as is complacency," Rep. Michael Howard said in a statement. "Alec's Bill is a necessary lifeline for so many Minnesotans. It is a solution we can and should pass immediately. We must listen and be moved by those who can't afford the insulin instead of the drug manufacturers who profit richly while Minnesotans struggle for health and happiness." 

Officials said Thursday the new legislation is ready for immediate implementation.

"We have a solution to this crisis," Walz said in a statement. "Taking the best from both Democrat and Republican proposals, this compromise bill would increase access to affordable insulin, hold Big Pharma accountable, and is ready to be implemented. There's no reason not to support it."

Nick McGee, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also known as PhRMA, said they hadn't seen the bill so couldn't comment on it.

The regular legislative session begins in less than two weeks, on Feb. 11.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

EDITOR'S NOTE: KSTP has since corrected the proposal as The Associated Press previously reported the plan would include a free emergency program, which is an outdated proposal, according to the DFL.

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