‘Pass the damn thing!' Activists fed up over Minn. lawmakers' inaction on insulin

The godfather of a Minnesota man who died this summer after rationing insulin is among those taking out months of frustration on state lawmakers for their inaction on emergency insulin assistance.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers held a roundtable Wednesday on the insulin issue. But more meaningful gatherings – committee hearings or a special session to pass legislation – appear unlikely because of a disagreement over how to fund an assistance program.

"It's called the emergency insulin bill on this sheet because people need it in emergencies," said Iain St. James, the godfather of 21-year-old Jesy Scherer-Radcliffe, who died earlier this year. "But to me, that's not what it is. It's an emergency that you pass the damn thing now!"

Two Republican senators are now calling for Senate hearings on the matter. But a key Republican colleague, Senate Health committee chair Michelle Benson, has signaled an unwillingness to schedule a hearing anytime soon.

Gov. Tim Walz has said he wants to call a special session to pass an emergency insulin bill, but would not call one without a deal first. This week, he said there had been no movement toward an agreement.

Lawmakers broadly agree on the merits of a program allowing diabetics to have access to an emergency supply of insulin regardless of their ability to pay. But they don't agree whether drug companies or taxpayers should be the ones funding it, and Benson this week raised new concerns about the embattled Department of Human Services' role in administering the program.

State Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, bucked his own party Tuesday and became the first GOP senator to call for a committee hearing. But he was swiftly beaten back by Benson.

"When I see a proposal, then we can figure out what that hearing would look like and bring the right people in," said Benson, R-Ham Lake.

Then on Wednesday, a second Republican, state Sen. Jim Abeler, said he too wanted hearings.

"We need to get this done," said Abeler, R-Anoka. "It's time to figure out how to pay for this."

Abeler also contradicted Benson over the role of DHS, saying the agency was "totally capable" of handling an insulin program.

Emergency insulin assistance failed to pass in the waning moments of the legislative session in May. The delay has forced diabetics and activists to show up at community forums and roundtables like the one Wednesday to keep the issue in the spotlight. 

"We are begging them to call a special session, stop the bickering, and to say let's just get this done," said Quinn Nystrom, a diabetic and leader of the group Minnesota Insulin4All. "None of us want to be dying or rationing insulin. Can I make that any clearer?"

Two Minnesota insurers, UCare and Medica, have recently announced plans to cap monthly out-of-pocket costs at $25. And drug companies have their own affordability programs that provide discounts to some low-income diabetics.

But the programs deny many people who apply, Nystrom said.

Despite a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on the issue, the inaction led to finger-pointing on Wednesday. One Senate Republican took issue with the attitude from House Democrats and Walz that they should simply pass the House's version.

"It just can't be saying, take it or leave it. And sometimes I feel like that's where we're at," said state Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake.

State Rep. Michael Howard, the Richfield Democrat who authored the House's proposal, fired back.

"We are ready to meet to work to find that compromise," he said. "But you can't compromise with someone who refuses to engage whatsoever on the issue."