Minnesota lawmakers grapple with rising drug costs

Published 9:02 am Friday, May 10, 2019

ST. PAUL— Minnesota lawmakers are trying to get their hands around skyrocketing drug costs and the complex pharmaceutical industry that sets the prices.

Several bills are in motion to tackle problems from anti-price gouging efforts to new reporting requirements for drug companies when prices spike. Nearly all those bills have been tucked into House and Senate budget bills and are heading into the final negotiations of the 2019 session, Minnesota Public Radio reported Thursday.

The bipartisan push has been fueled by personal stories from Minnesota residents. Nicole Smith-Holt has been a regular around the Capitol, talking about her son Alec Smith, a diabetic who died at age 26 because he was rationing insulin that he couldn’t afford. Legislators keep his photo in their wallets and on their desks. Both the House and Senate health and human services budgets include assistance for emergency insulin supplies but their different approaches need to be reconciled.

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“It’s an honor, it feels good,” she said. “It feels like Alec is motivating these people to do good.”

Before heading into negotiations last week, Sen. Michelle Benson recalled hearing about a new wonder drug that could potentially cure spinal muscular atrophy — a crippling and often fatal disease in babies. But it could cost $2 million a dose.

“These are the debates that we end up having as policymakers: Who pays for that?” said Benson, a Ham Lake Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Finance Committee. “The miracles that are created in the pharmaceutical industry, we celebrate, but they also need to treat consumers fairly.”

It’s not just the miracle drugs. The price of brand-name oral prescription drugs already on the market rose more than 9 percent a year between 2008 and 2016, according to a recent report in the Journal on Health Affairs, while the annual cost of injectable drugs rose more than 15 percent. The price of insulin doubled between 2012 and 2016, according to the Health Care Cost Institute.

Bills are also moving to regulate pharmacy benefit managers. They negotiate with drugmakers on behalf of the government and insurers, and the deals they strike determine the availability and prices of prescription drugs for more than 266 million Americans. But they do this out of view of the public and regulators, which leads to confusion about how drug prices are set.

‘We have to look at every piece of the supply chain and look at what we can do,’ said Sen. Scott Jensen, a Chaska Republican who authored the bill and is one of a handful of physicians in the Legislature.