Lawmakers who trekked to Rochester and the Mayo Clinic on Wednesday heard about skyrocketing prescription drug prices and offered assurances that stemming the rise will continue to be a top priority at the Capitol next year.
Many of the lawmakers had boarded a coach bus at the Capitol in the morning, bound for the first legislative “mini-session” in more than two decades. The House-only event involves three days of hearings on topics from drug affordability to wastewater treatment to child-care shortages.
Although lawmakers left St. Paul behind, the usual political fighting followed them south. Before the hearing on prescription drugs at the clinic’s Destination Medical Center, Republican lawmakers said organizers of the mini-session are missing an important opportunity to talk about reforms needed at the Department of Human Services (DHS).
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, described the results of a federal audit announced Wednesday as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The audit found the state’s Medicaid program paid $3.7 million to cover patients who had already died. Daudt said that and other problems at the department should be discussed at the mini-session.
“We feel the agency is in crisis and we need to take action,” he said.
In the sort of dueling news conference that is typical during the regular legislative session, DFL leaders took the podium after Daudt to rebut some of his statements.
“We’re bringing the Legislature to the people of southeastern Minnesota. Unfortunately, it looked like this afternoon we’re also bringing the cheap political attacks from the Capitol,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley.
House leaders said they plan to hold a hearing after the new DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead has time to analyze the issues.
The roughly 100 House members who are spending a few days exploring needs and issues in southeastern Minnesota are just gathering information. The only way lawmakers can pass legislation before the regular session starts next February is if Democratic Gov. Tim Walz calls a special session.
On the day before the mini-session, Walz sent a letter to House and Senate leaders saying they should have public meetings to work out their differences on programs to supply diabetics with affordable insulin. He offered to have his staff participate and said he would call a special session limited to emergency health care issues if they come to an agreement.
Insulin was mentioned frequently during the Rochester hearing.
“Insulin is the one Achilles’ heel of the pharmaceutical industry, because they cannot justify the price,” said Dr. S. Vincent Rajkumar, a hematologist at Mayo Clinic. He said it is “baffling” how a drug created about 100 years ago can still be priced so high.
Legislators also heard about Civica Rx, a nonprofit made up of numerous health care organizations — including the Mayo Clinic — which formed last year to manufacture generic medications. The nonprofit delivered its first drug on Wednesday in Utah, said Eric Tichy, vice chair of pharmacy supply solutions at Mayo. He described the nonprofit as an attempt to bring competition to the generic drug market and improve price transparency and predictability.
Health care was not the only topic on the table in Rochester. Committees focused on health and human services, energy and the climate. City staff described how they are encouraging sustainable building practices. Rochester Public Utilities officials discussed navigating the shift to more renewable energy sources.
Others traveled farther south Wednesday, with some touring the Niagara Cave in Harmony, Minn., near the Iowa border, others talking about the census at Austin City Hall and one committee checking out the home of Spam at the Hormel plant.
Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said people in outstate Minnesota worry that lawmakers only hear from people in the Twin Cities and people who are near the Capitol.
“This really shows all of us that people care, that they recognize that we’re doing good work too,” Norton said. “And I think this will help us when we come to the Capitol and say, ‘We’re working on this and we need help.’ ”