ST. PAUL — A group of state lawmakers working to make emergency insulin available to those who can't afford it on Monday, July 29, said they'd reached a compromise that could be worked out in a special session.
But the most contentious piece of that agreement — how to fund it — remained elusive.
It's the same disagreement that sunk a similar proposal in the final hours of a special legislative session in May. The so-called Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act, named for a 26-year-old Minneapolis man who died after rationing his insulin, was peeled out of a massive health and human services spending bill. And last-minute efforts to add it back into the bill came up short on the Senate floor.
The disagreement on funding for the emergency insulin program breaks mostly on party lines. And that has been difficult so far to overcome in the politically-divided Legislature.
Democrats say insulin manufacturers should pay the bill for emergency insulin supplies as they've hiked the price of insulin to a point that has put it out of reach for many diabetics. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, want to see funding for the emergency medication for people come from a tax levied on medical providers.
The group of 11 lawmakers from both political parties, representing the Minnesota House of Representatives and Senate, reached a deal that would allow those who meet certain financial constraints to get a 20-day supply of insulin to avoid rationing the drug. The emergency supplies would be available at most pharmacies and those who need additional insulin and meet certain criteria could access up to a two-month supply of the drug.
“It’s far from perfect, but this deal will save lives,” Sen. Matt Little, D-Lakeville, announced Monday in a statement. “Every day we fail to act, another young person might die without emergency access to insulin. All we’ve got left is to hammer out the funding mechanism and we could pass this in a special session.”
It appeared that Democrats in that group felt they'd met the agreed-upon constraints to reveal the secret group and to share what members had decided. Members weren't going to comment publicly or share their work with the reporters until a deal was reached, talks broke down or Aug. 1 came around.
Republicans, meanwhile, said without a clear funding source, calling the proposal a deal was "premature." Sens. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, and Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, said legislative leaders and the governor need to join the group seeking a compromise deal.
Top legislative leaders and health committee chairs weren't in the room where the proposed compromise was hashed out. And that could prove fatal for any plan set to come before the Legislature.
"We are getting close to a plan that can be put in place sooner rather than later," Abeler and Jensen said in a statement. "But we need the help of the same triumvirate of leaders that determined so much of the content of the final omnibus bills passed in the May 24-25 special session."
The "triumvirate" consists of the governor, Senate majority leader and House speaker. The three spent weeks holed up at the Capitol working on a $48 billion, two-year budget while lawmakers outside that conference room vented their frustrations about not being involved.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said they were open to a special session if lawmakers could reach a deal on funding. But Gazelka raised concerns about turning over control of the problem to the Department of Human Services, which has recently experienced top-level turnover and has been criticized for fraud reported in at least one state-run program.
“I’m open to a special session when there is a compromise reached that we all agree on," Gazelka said in a statement. "The compromise should help those who need it most, can’t be abused or become another area of fraud, and preferably is something that gives us a path forward to lowering the cost of all prescription drugs for Minnesotans.”
Gov. Tim Walz said the compromise framework released Monday wasn't a real deal as it didn't come with a funding mechanism. And he said he'd oppose plans that didn't set the fee on opioid manufacturers.
“It’s not a deal because it doesn’t pay for it,” Walz told reporters. "We’re not going to continue to give more state taxpayer dollars to insulin manufacturers so they can jack the price up.”
The price of insulin doubled between 2012 and 2016, a January study showed. And some Minnesotans have voyaged north to Canada to buy the drug at a lower price.
The Democratic governor has the authority to call a special session, so without his approval, a plan wouldn't have much of a shot at being considered before lawmakers return to St. Paul in February.
Members of the workgroup said they'd aim to hold public hearings beginning in August.
“We need to do this work in the public arena and listen to Minnesotans who have been impacted by this issue,” Rep. Michael Howard, D-Richfield said. Howard carried the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act in the House earlier this year. “Minnesotans are waiting for us to act.”