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Minn. lawmakers want to hold Big Pharma accountable, but disagree on best approach

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ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers are taking steps to rein in the costs of prescription drugs and hold pharmaceutical companies accountable.

But Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate have not come to terms on the best ways to do it.

At a press conference at the State Capitol on Tuesday, March 26,House Democrats detailed a series of bills and said Republicans in the Senate have given them little airtime. They stood next to several Minnesotans whose lives have been affected by the soaring costs of insulin and other prescription drugs.

“Big pharma has been a protected class for far too long. And it is time that we end it,” said House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. “That is why it is essential for government to take action, to make sure that the marketplace does not price people out of their lives.”

Democratic proposals include:

  • Giving diabetics access to an emergency supply of insulin if they cannot afford it.
  • Ensuring pharmacists can refill prescriptions for “life-saving” drugs on an emergency basis.
  • Requiring drug makers to report price hikes and explain why they increased.
  • Authorizing attorney general to take legal action against drug makers and wholesalers that price-gouge consumers.

Republicans: Focus on whole market, not just insulin

Republicans in the Senate are also on board with the proposal to hold drug manufacturers accountable for price hikes. Where the two parties differ, however, is in their approach to insulin.

Deputy Senate Majority Leader Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said Republicans want to cut the costs of “all drugs that impact Minnesotans’ lives.”

“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,” she said.

Benson said the emergency insulin bill will not get a hearing in the Senate. She said those in need of emergency insulin should “please go to an emergency room.”

She acknowledged that the proposal could resurface in end-of-session discussions.

“We don’t need every bill to line up; we need our ideas to line up,” Benson said.

Waiting for action

Scores of Minnesotans who have been impacted by high drug prices will watch closely as lawmakers debate these bills.

Among them is St. Paul resident Claire Henn, who shared her story during the news conference Tuesday. She said the price of the medicine she takes for her rheumatoid arthritis spiked from $60 to $1,400 per treatment.

The medication halts the progression of her disease. Because Henn could not afford it, she went three years without it.

The three years I was without medication, my body deteriorated. The side effects of the deterioration (are) not reversible,” Henn said. “I cannot cut a peanut butter sandwich. I can’t turn a knob on a light switch to turn it on and off.”

She later found a cheaper drug, which cost $1,070 a month, and a charity care that would pay for it.

“If I don’t have charity paying for this, I could lose my home or end up being in worse shape and having to have people care for me,” Henn said. “Something has to be done. We have to stop the price gouging and make it transparent so we can see where our money is going.”