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‘What’s the holdup?’ County commissioner pushes lawmakers on insulin solution

A possible special session focused on the insulin affordability issue never materialized, and a bipartisan task force missed a self-imposed deadline to reach a deal. Differences persist between the Republican and Democratic plans, primarily in how to pay for a plan to bring free insulin to those in need.

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Crow Wing County Commissioner Doug Houge (center) listens Tuesday, Dec. 17, as state Rep. Dale Lueck (front) talks about the insulin debate at the state Capitol. Also pictured are Commissioner Rosemary Franzen (left), Commissioner Bill Brekken and state Rep. Josh Heintzeman. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch
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After months of negotiations, why has the Minnesota Legislature still not crafted a solution to give diabetics access to an emergency supply of insulin?

That question arose more than two hours into a meeting Tuesday, Dec. 17, between Crow Wing County officials and area state lawmakers to define county priorities headed into the 2020 legislative session. Commissioner Doug Houge broached the topic in a pointed fashion with state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, and Republican state Reps. Josh Heintzeman and Dale Lueck. The issue is a personal one for Houge, who faces the fourth anniversary Friday of the unexpected loss of his 27-year-old son Brandon due to complications of Type 1 diabetes.

“Why not? What’s the holdup?” Houge responded to Ruud’s acknowledgment the issue remained unresolved.

Ruud said insurance companies have responded by offering solutions on their own without government intervention, and she pointed out lawmakers cannot call a special session — only Gov. Tim Walz has the power to do so. A possible special session focused on the insulin affordability issue never materialized, and a bipartisan task force missed a self-imposed deadline to reach a deal. Differences persist between the Republican and Democratic plans, primarily in how to pay for a plan to bring free insulin to those in need.

The skyrocketing cost of insulin has become a hot-button issue across the nation with a 10-day supply now costing as much as $300. About 330,000 adults in Minnesota have been diagnosed with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, according to the state Department of Health. Reports of insulin rationing around the state brought the debate to the forefront, especially in cases when Minnesotans died from complications of diabetes. After Tuesday’s meeting, Houge said there’s no way to know if his son, who died of ketoacidosis, rationed his insulin.

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“I wish I could ask him,” Houge said.

It’s frustrating, the commissioner added, to know some people like Brandon aren’t able to access the medication they need to live.

“Is it on anybody’s radar to take something and figure something out here before we lose more?” Houge asked the legislators.

“Well, not before session. We’re going in on the 11th (of February),” Ruud said. “This whole time, the governor could’ve called a special session any time.”

“I struggle with that,” Houge shot back. “It’s easy to point the finger at the governor but during the session I would’ve thought that the two groups could’ve sat down and ironed out at least a temporary solution to this, but it just seems like finger-pointing back and forth.”

Ruud said she thought a lot has been accomplished on the issue between the 2019 session and today, noting she does not serve on any of the health and human services committees. She said funding appeared to be the last remaining stumbling block, and noted all three legislators from the local delegation voted in support of respective insulin bills during the session.

Democrats want to charge a fee to the insulin manufacturers that would fund insulin supplies for low-income people without insurance or with high-deductible insurance plans. Republicans say the state should require insulin manufacturers to supply insulin to needy patients with diabetes who are not already on a public health program to fend off the need for rationing.

“I have to agree there’s a lot of political posturing, but … all three of us voted for the solution. The fact that there was political posturing at the end and there were things we voted for that didn’t get put in there is really a crying shame,” Ruud said. “... That wasn’t anything we had control over and it’s really sad that it got into the political realm versus just getting what we all voted for.”

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“It is sad, and hopefully something can happen soon because too frequently there are people who are rationing insulin because they can’t afford it,” Houge replied.

Ruud suggested diabetics unable to afford insulin can approach their doctors for help.

“But that’s not the answer,” Houge said. “It’s a long-term problem that’s going to only get worse.”

Ruud predicted the matter would be resolved early in the 2020 session.

“I do think it’s something that will be addressed right in the beginning. Because it’s always been a priority and it’s been a priority for all of us, because we all voted for it,” she said.

Lueck noted some of the responsibility of solving the insulin affordability issue rests at the federal level. He said a number of his constituents are shocked by the cost of insulin once they leave the workforce and begin to rely on Medicare without the benefit of supplemental insurance. Legislation addressing insulin costs is in the works in Congress. U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R- Duluth, recently introduced an amendment to legislation addressing drug prices that would lower the cost of insulin at the pharmacy counter.

In an email following Tuesday’s meeting, Houge said the bottom line is insulin shouldn’t be a political issue, and in fairness to the local lawmakers, he’s received the same responses from Democratic lawmakers.

“The focus should be on saving lives. Funding something like this is a challenge I’m sure, but I know they have figured out other challenging issues, many that don’t have someone’s life in limbo,” Houge wrote. “ … The fact is if they were to sit down in the same room, something they don’t do today, they could figure this thing out.”

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The House and Senate Insulin Public Working Group is set to meet again 10 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18.

Dana Ferguson of Forum News Service contributed to this report.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .
Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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