'The law is in effect:' Walz rips drug makers for suing over Minnesota's insulin law

Gov. Tim Walz and insulin advocates blasted drug makers who are suing to strike down Minnesota's new insulin accessibility law just as it takes effect.

The lawsuit, filed by the industry group PhRMA in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota late Tuesday, said the law is unconstitutional because it requires drug companies to provide insulin at a dramatically reduced cost.

Walz said lawmakers had assured him that the drug companies would not sue to block the measure he signed in April after more than a year of legislative wrangling over the issue.

"I'll just be candid. It was a 'what the hell?'" Walz told reporters of learning about the lawsuit in a text from Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. "They did something I didn’t think was possible. They’re more hated than COVID-19. How do you do this? How do you decide to be so awful?"

The law requires pharmacies to provide a 30-day supply of insulin with no more than a $35 copay to diabetics who can't afford the medication. It also allows lower-income diabetics to get a year's supply of insulin at reduced cost, subject to income limitations.

Minnesota's law requires drug companies to participate, and says they could face a $100,000 fine each year they don't comply.

"A state cannot simply commandeer private property to achieve its public policy goals," PhRMA said in its lawsuit

The law took effect Wednesday, and state officials urged that it stands unless a court strikes it down. The state launched a new website to promote the program, mninsulin.org. 

If diabetics go to their local pharmacy and fill out the necessary paperwork, they should be able to get their insulin on the same day, said Cody Wiberg, the state's top pharmacy regulator.

"Our direction from the Board of Pharmacy to pharmacies is this law is currently in effect and they need to follow it, and I think they will," Wiberg said.

Nicole Smith-Holt and James Holt, whose son Alec died in 2017 after rationing his insulin, said they were outraged by the lawsuit. They said the drug companies' action reflected their greed.

"All Minnesotans should be disgusted by this attitude," Nicole Smith-Holt told reporters.

Smith-Holt has long fought for the legislation, testifying at news conferences and meeting with lawmakers. She was one of a handful of people in the House chamber when the bill passed in April, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

House Democrats initially passed legislation imposing fees on the drug companies to pay for the program. But Senate Republicans opposed that plan, saying it would certainly be subject to lawsuits. 

Lawmakers stalled on the issue for more than a year before a compromise measure passed with overwhelming support this spring.

The Republican leader of the Minnesota Senate, Paul Gazelka, said he was "very disappointed" by the lawsuit, which he called "poorly timed."

Though PhRMA filed the lawsuit hours before the law was set to take effect, a spokesman confirmed the industry group is not seeking an emergency injunction.

"PhRMA is not seeking a temporary restraining order to block the law from taking effect, but has asked the court to strike it down after hearing the challenge," said Nick McGee, the spokesman.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said he was "outraged" by the legal challenge to the insulin law.

"It’s my job as attorney general to defend this law in court. My office and I will defend it with every resource we have," Ellison, a Democrat, said in an emailed statement.

Those eligible for the urgent need program must:

  • Live in Minnesota
  • Have an urgent need for insulin
  • Have a current prescription for insulin
  • Pay more than $75 each month for their insulin prescription
  • Not be enrolled in Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare
  • Present a valid Minnesota ID card, driver’s license or permit, or tribal-issued ID to the pharmacy. For children under age 18, a parent or legal guardian must provide the pharmacy with their proof of residency

Gov. Walz also declared July 1, 2020 Alec Smith Day to honor the 26-year-old man who died after losing his parents’ health insurance and therefore was not able to afford the insulin he needed.

Interested individuals should visit MNinsulin.org to see if they qualify and learn how to apply.