Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that he wants to sign legislation as soon as possible to help people who can't afford insulin, but he made clear he would not call a special session until state legislators have worked out a deal.

The governor's remarks came after a roundtable discussion with people who have diabetes, advocates for insulin affordability, the executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, a doctor and a nurse. The event seemed designed to pressure state lawmakers to act after the Legislature adjourned in May with no deal.

Under the glare of bright lights and surrounded by reporters and cameras, activists and experts shared stories of how the price of the drug they depend on has climbed astronomically.

Quinn Nystrom of Baxter said when she and her brother were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in the mid- to late 1990s, the drug was $16 to $20 for a vial. It now is priced at $300 to $400 in the U.S., she said.

People turn to an insulin "black market," travel to Canada to buy the drug, or use a low-cost version from Walmart that does not work as well, advocates said.

Walz pressed the group on whether it would save lives to pass a bill to provide emergency insulin assistance — a question that was answered with firm chorus of "yes."

A measure funded by levies on drug manufacturers appeared to have bipartisan support in the Legislature. But it was left out of the final version of a state Health and Human Services spending bill.

Senate Republicans voted down a last-minute amendment to add the emergency insulin program, which was opposed by the pharmaceutical industry.

House Democrats voted down a different version of the amendment that would have used money from the state's Health Care Access Fund instead of industry fees.

Walz said Wednesday he believes drug manufacturers need to be part of the solution to address insulin prices.

"The clear issue here … is that the manufacturers don't want to pay," he said.

House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, took a sharper tone in a statement Wednesday. He said Senate Republicans killed the insulin program and "sold out to Big Pharma."

Senate Republican Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, sent out his own statement saying insulin prices should not be used as a divisive political tool.

"As I said on the last night of special session, we are going to keep working on insulin to make sure we have a solution that fits the problem," Gazelka said. "The proposed ideas need to be hammered out to earn the support of legislators, patients, advocates, doctors, and pharmacists."

PhRMA spokesman Nick McGee has said the industry group is committed to working with policymakers to help lower patients' out-of-pocket costs. But he has said the previously proposed legislation doesn't account for existing insulin manufacturer programs to help diabetics, and he said it would have put resources toward "a state-run program with little detail of how it would be implemented or benefit patients."

While top legislators continue to clash over the death of the bill this session, a bipartisan group of House and Senate members has quietly started meeting to talk about insulin.

The group has met once, said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, said they are meeting again later this month to try to come up with solutions for how to get Minnesotans access to emergency insulin when they need it.

If they do craft an agreement, Abeler said he is hopeful it could be quickly voted on in a special session.

"The question is: What other demands are going to be made of a special session?" he said, noting that Democrats want money for bonding projects and Gazelka has mentioned he wants to revisit a tax on health care providers. "Will there be too much weight from everyone's demands that we do everything, instead of solving this one critical problem?"

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044