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Minnesota Democrats turn up heat on GOP over insulin prices



FILE - Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — 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 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.

Walz said at a news conference that he won’t compromise on requiring pharmaceutical companies to be part of the solution to insulin prices, which have tripled in the past decade.

The new bill includes the House Democrats’ proposal to allow diabetics who run out of insulin to obtain emergency refills if they can’t afford them, though it now adds a $30 copayment. It would cover the costs by charging insulin manufacturers roughly $10 million in fees annually, which Senate Republicans oppose. But the bill also includes major elements of a Senate GOP plan to require manufacturers to provide long-term supplies of free insulin to qualifying Minnesotans.

“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.

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. Eric Pratt of Prior Lake, 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.

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 manufacturers and not just rely on manufacturers to pay for the whole thing,” he said.

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 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.”

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.

The bill is named for Alec Smith, of Minneapolis, who died of diabetic complications in 2017 at age 26. He had aged off his mother’s insurance and 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.

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