ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota House Democrats began a fresh push Tuesday to try to make prescription drugs more affordable, highlighting several bills that have been moving through the House but not the GOP-controlled Senate.
They held a news conference where the parents of Alec Smith, a 26-year-old Minneapolis man who died from diabetic complications in 2017, recalled how he was rationing his insulin because he became too old to stay on their insurance but couldn't afford the $1,300 monthly cost for his insulin and supplies. They said the pharmaceutical companies now have free rein to raise prices on essential medications.
"History shows that Pharma has no morals. They cannot self-regulate. Without restrictions, Pharma has singlehandedly caused the early death of my 26-year-old and countless others," said his mother, Nicole Smith-Holt. "Not having access to affordable insulin is a right-to-life issue that needs to be addressed and remedied."
"We need to have all these insulin bills heard in the Senate," his father James Holt Jr. said. "And we need for these bills to be passed. And we need this to happen immediately," he said.
The chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Michelle Benson, countered that her chamber has been working on drug prices since before the session but is focusing on "bills that will impact the entire market," not just one drug. "We want to impact how pharmaceutical companies price drugs throughout Minnesota, and not just in one category," the Ham Lake Republican said.
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, who has a 12-year-old with type 1 diabetes and a 14-year-old with a severe peanut allergy, said insulin and EpiPen prices have a direct impact on his family. The Golden Valley Democrat called on the Senate to join with House Democrats in standing up to the drug makers.
The House Democratic package includes more than just the insulin bill named for Smith. Other bills are aimed at price gouging, price transparency, and putting power in the hands of patients and doctors, not insurers or pharmacy benefit managers, to decide which drugs are best for patients. The bills got their latest hearings Tuesday in the House health and human services finance committee. Most of the companion bills in the Senate have not gotten hearings.
Rep. Michael Howard, chief author of the insulin bill, said there's been "quite a bit of silence" from the Senate. The Richfield Democrat said the pharmaceutical industry's influence is one reason.
But Benson said Senate Republicans are trying to cut costs of all drugs. One of their proposals would bring greater transparency to rebates given by pharmaceutical companies to pharmacy benefit managers and health plans so it will become apparent whether consumers are benefiting. Another would make it easier for patients to access coupons and discounts on a range of drugs including insulin.
"We're being pretty aggressive with the pharmaceutical industry," Benson said. "We're taking into account the way that they actually have to operate in the world but we need consumers to know that Republicans want them to have the best value in pharmaceuticals."
Nick McGee, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said his group opposes the price gouging, price transparency and insulin bills in the Democratic package, but supports or doesn't have positions on the rest. He said in an email that they agree that Minnesota patients should have affordable access to the medicines they need.
"We hope the Legislature will take a balanced approach that looks across the health-care system to address the real challenges patients are facing with their out-of-pocket costs at the pharmacy — that's what they deserve right now," he said.