Senate panel approves emergency insulin bill

Close up of a person holding a bottle of insulin.
A patient holds a vial of insulin during a news conference outside the Olde Walkersville Pharmacy in July 2019 in Windsor, Ontario.
Carlos Osorio | AP Photo file

The ongoing debate over insulin access and affordability took another turn Thursday when the state Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee approved a plan to provide access to insulin to Minnesotans who can’t afford it.

The newly revised Senate insulin bill evolved much later than another version backed by House Democrats, which has drawn sharp opposition from the pharmaceutical industry. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version does not impose a new fee on insulin manufacturers.

Both measures are a response to sharp price increases in insulin, which is needed by people with diabetes to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

“I don’t think we would be here if the pricing was done the same as you would have the price of tomatoes or some other commodity,” Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said. “But for no reason I can imagine, the price of insulin has gone up hugely, in a mode of what I call capitalism gone bad.”

Senators on the committee said they would continue to work on the legislation as it makes its way through more committees.

Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, one of two physicians who serve in the Senate, said the cost of the proposed program is unclear.

Jensen April 12
Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

“I think the pharmaceutical manufacturers will be stepping up to the plate and providing probably at least 90 percent of the cost of this program through insulin product,” Jensen said.

“To me, what we’re trying to do is solve a problem. And that problem has to do with patient care and patients at risk.”

The proposal would provide access to insulin for Minnesotans unable to afford it on both an emergency and ongoing basis. The partially subsidized program would require drug manufacturers to provide their product to income-eligible participants at no cost. But those patients would need to pay a $75 copay to the pharmacy for a 30-day supply.

Sen. Melissa Wicklund, DFL-Bloomington, tried unsuccessfully to add a fee on drug companies to the Senate bill.

“This isn’t punitive,” she said. “This isn’t a penalty. This is acknowledgement that this problem affects people because of the prices.”

House Democrats presented their competing version, which was unresolved last session, earlier this week. The House held two more hearings Thursday.

House DFL leaders said this week that their bill is on a fast track, with a floor vote expected in a couple of weeks.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said the Senate bill is also on a fast track.

“It is our goal to try to work at a similar speed and actually pass an insulin bill,” Gazelka said. “I think that you’ll see that there’s movement, and I see light at the end of the tunnel. So, stay tuned.”

Drug manufacturers sent letters to lawmakers this week raising constitutional concerns about the House bill. Some lawmakers are wondering aloud about a potential lawsuit.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, raised the issue during a hearing in the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Division, saying litigation could delay an emergency insulin program.

But the House author of the bill, Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, said the threat of a lawsuit should not delay legislative action.

“We have to move forward with what we think is best for Minnesota and for patients. So, that will be the priority going forward.”

Gov. Tim Walz said he remains hopeful about reaching a compromise. He said there have been no behind the scenes negotiations with legislative leaders.

“Nothing amongst leadership is happening,” he said. “I just told them I wanted it done.”

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