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Minnesota lawmakers look to crack down on rising insulin costs

James Holt, Jr. and Nicole Smith-Holt on Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, talk about their son Alec Smith, who died in 2017 because he rationed his insulin after he could no longer afford it. A group of Minnesota lawmakers said they'd aim to drive down the cost of the drug used to treat diabetes. Dana Ferguson / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

ST. PAUL -- A bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers on Tuesday, Jan. 22, said it would bring legislation aimed at cracking down on the rising price of insulin.

At a news conference, legislators said they'd aim to require pharmaceutical companies to be more transparent about their reasons for boosting insulin prices and set up a system that would allow those with diabetes to access refills if they can't afford the drug.

The calls for reform came a day after the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute reported that the price for drugs used to treat type 1 diabetes nearly doubled in the last five years.

"There is no good reason for these absurd increases," Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, said. "For us to do nothing in the face of what we've known for some time would be just wrong."

Lawmakers carrying the package of proposals said they heard from several constituents who brought their concerns about the price of insulin and their inability to afford it. They also heard about Alec Smith, whose story gained national attention as his parents Nicole Smith-Holt and James Holt, Jr. spoke about how their 26-year-old son rationed insulin because he wasn't able to afford it. Alec Smith died of diabetic ketoacidosis as a result in 2017.

“How we need oxygen to breathe, they need insulin to live,” James Holt, Jr. said of people with diabetes. “It’s time we do something about it. Enough is enough. We lost our 26-year-old son way too early.”

A proposal named for Alec Smith would let those with diabetes get a temporary refill if they can't afford their insulin. The state would then reimburse the pharmacy. Pharmaceutical companies would pay a fee to finance that state fund.

That measure has bipartisan and bicameral support, but sponsors acknowledged that they would face a challenge in winning over Senate Republicans, who hold a two-vote majority in that chamber and tend to oppose burdensome regulations.

"My caucus is open to the discussion," Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, said. "I suspect there will be a challenge."

The group also proposed other measures that they said would make drug prices more transparent and, in turn, drive them down:

  • Senate File 364, would set a long-term plan for driving down the cost of insulin and let the Minnesota Health Commissioner hold accountable drug companies by setting reimbursement charges.

  • Senate file 365 would require insurance companies to tell customers what brands of insulin and health care equipment are covered under a health plan.
  • Senate File 366, if approved, would require pharmaceutical companies that sell insulin to explain their decision to hike prices and the state Health Commissioner would then analyze that information and present it to the Legislature.
  • The Minnesota Department of Health in 2015 reported that 320,000 Minnesotans live with type 1 or type 2 diabetes.

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