What's holding up insulin price bills in the Minnesota Legislature?

House DFL leaders say Senate Republicans are to blame
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Heading into the 2019 Legislative session, lawmakers seemed prepared to tackle the skyrocketing cost of insulin - a prescription drug type-1 diabetics need to take frequently in order to live.

"I think for us to do nothing in the face of what we have known for some time would be just wrong," said Republican Sen. Jim Abeler at a December roundtable, according to the Woodbury Bulletin.

"We need to do something drastic, and that's really what I'm taking from the testimony," DFL Sen. Matt Little added.

It's been more than three months since that roundtable. The Legislature has been in session since early January. What progress have lawmakers made addressing the insulin crisis?

Not much. And House DFL lawmakers held a press conference Tuesday to try to push things forward.

"Minnesotans should not be forced to choose between their groceries and their needed medication, but this is happening all across our state - it’s wrong,” said Rep. Michael Howard of the DFL at Tuesday's press conference.

Standing beside him were Nicole Smith-Holt and James Holt, the parents of Alec Smith, a type 1 diabetic. After turning 26 and losing his health insurance in 2017, he was unable to afford his $1,300-a-month insulin prescription, and attempted to ration his supply, as NPR recounts here.

He died a few weeks later.

Now, the House DFL is pushing a collection of seven bills it says will stop the rampant price increases, improve transparency, hold drug manufacturers accountable, and ensure Minnesotans with diabetes always have access to affordable insulin. 

The insulin measure, named after Alec Smith, would see the creation of an emergency fund to buy up insulin supplies, which would be made available to low-income diabetes patients who aren't covered for the medication.

But the House DFLers pushing these bills feel Republicans in the Senate haven't moved anything along in their chamber.

One of the main targets for Democratic ire is Senate Deputy Majority Leader Sen. Michelle Benson, who the Pioneer Press reports has said the emergency insulin bill will not get a hearing in the Senate.

Benson was criticized by Sen. Little on Tuesday after suggesting in a Facebook post that diabetes patients in dire need of insulin should go to an emergency room.

She also suggested that the answer to rising insulin costs is ensuring that manufacturers pass on coupons that reduce the cost of co-pays at the point of sale as a matter of practice.

But Sen. Little said Benson's suggestion was "utter nonsense," tweeting: "If you can’t afford insulin, then you really can’t afford an emergency room visit. Coupons and rebates may work well for buying groceries, but not for life-sustaining medication."

Benson and other Minnesota GOPers are pushing back against DFL pressure, arguing that rather than focusing solely on insulin, they are tackling the overall price gouging issue to hold big pharma accountable.

The lynchpin is a bill that does not prevent drug companies from raising the cost of drugs, but does mandate they explain why the price went up, according to a news release.

“I know there are a lot of people concerned about insulin, but we want to impact how pharmaceutical companies price drugs throughout Minnesota, and not just in one category,” said Benson, per the Pioneer Press.

The parents of Alec Smith would like to see more.

“We need to have all these insulin bills heard in the Senate," said his father James Holt at Tuesday's press conference, according to the AP. "And we need for these bills to be passed. And we need this to happen immediately,”

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