'This is a life or death issue': Advocates urge lawmakers to act on emergency insulin
ST. PAUL — Advocates pushing for emergency access to insulin sent a clear message to Minnesota lawmakers on Wednesday, Aug. 14: get it done.
The human toll of delaying the approval of the program that would provide a free short-term supply of insulin to Minnesotans with Type 1 diabetes who couldn't afford it is mounting, they said, and it will continue to grow with no legislative intervention.
The deaths of two young men who were unable to afford insulin and rationed their supplies weighed on lawmakers who met at the Capitol to consider a path forward for the plan. And there appeared to be bipartisan understanding that compromise would be necessary to get the bill moving in the Legislature.
But exactly what that would look like and who would have to give before the governor could call a special session to take up the measure remained unclear.
“Stop the bickering and just say, 'Let’s just get this done,'" Quinn Nystrom, a Baxter, Minn., advocate living with Type 1 diabetes, said. "This isn’t a red or a blue issue. This is a life or death issue and it can’t wait until next February."
It was a refrain that came up again and again during the conversation as Minnesotans with Type 1 diabetes, their family members and others shared their concerns about the trend of the deaths carrying on without legislative action.
Lawmakers earlier this year considered but ultimately sunk a similar proposal that would've charged insulin manufacturers a fee to fund the emergency insulin program. That bill was named after Alec Smith, a 26 year old from Minneapolis who died in 2017 of complications of rationing his insulin.
In June, Jesimya 'Jesy' David Scherer-Radcliff of St. Louis Park died at 21 after rationing insulin. His godfather Iain St. James said the program could've saved Jesy's life if it had been up and running then.
“Jesy didn’t die from insulin rationing, he died from the prohibitive cost of insulin ... this program would've saved his life," St. James said. “It’s an emergency that you pass the d*** thing now."
A group of legislators over the summer met in secret in an effort to strike an accord on a new version of the bill. But they announced last month that they still couldn't agree on the funding source.
Lawmakers on Wednesday said they maintained disagreements about whether the state or the insulin manufacturers should foot the bill, but they wanted to see the proposal vetted in more public hearings.
"People die tragically but nobody should have to die from this," Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said. "We should not be holding diabetics hostage forever as we have this fight."
A day earlier, Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, requested that the Senate Health and Human Services Committee hold hearings on the bill and weigh in on the best funding source. But the committee's chair Sen. Michelle Benson, R- Ham Lake, declined to set a date and said she had concerns about the plans that had been brought to her so far this summer.
“I’m willing to look at things, but if the solution is to build something bigger at DHS, I’m not sure it’s really been thought out and not fully developed in light of what we’re going through,” Benson said following a hearing about problems at the state Department of Human Services.
Gov. Tim Walz has said he's willing to call a special session to work on the emergency insulin proposal and House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said she has the support in that chamber to pass it. But Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he too has concerns about pacing the program under DHS and not taking a broader look at prescription drug affordability.
Another Republican lawmaker at the hearing said each side would have to give before they'd have a final bill to which both sides could agree.
"Even today I've heard some politicking that I think is getting in the way of this thing," Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said. "Let's put down the sabers and let's continue the discussions."
Rep. Michael Howard, D-Richfield, who carried the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act in the House, said it was crucial that lawmakers working on the bill and that leaders come to the table to help hash out a final product.
"I agree that we should put our sabers down," Howard said. “We are ready to meet, to work, to find that compromise, but you can’t compromise with someone who refuses to engage whatsoever."