‘They didn't honor their word': Insulin advocates crushed by failure, await 2020

Parents of children with diabetes say they were crushed when Minnesota lawmakers failed to pass a program they’ve championed all year, and vow to return to the state Capitol in 2020.

Advocates had sought a guarantee that diabetics would have access to insulin, even if they couldn’t afford it. Instead, lawmakers approved a provision in the state budget allowing pharmacists to refill medications even if a person lacks an active prescription – but did not address affordability.

A top senator said the Legislature ought to reconsider the issue in 2020. But Kim Munson of Lakeville, whose 8-year-old daughter Kinsley has Type 1 diabetes, slammed this year’s inaction during an interview near the Senate chamber Tuesday. 

“This is political theater at its finest, in my opinion. Something could’ve happened, and it didn’t happen,” Munson said. “I think there’s a lot of trust to be rebuilt.”

Insulin access has been a major theme of the 2019 legislative session as insulin prices have skyrocketed in recent years. A Minneapolis man, Alec Smith, died in 2017 after he began rationing insulin supplies that he couldn’t afford.

A fee imposed on drug companies would’ve generated $5 million to pay for the affordability program, under legislation from Democrats. Some Republicans raised questions about how the program would’ve worked and whether pharmacists would participate.

The proposal appeared to be on solid ground when both the House and Senate tucked different versions of it into their health and human services bills. But it never made it into the final package.

Then, with the session coming to a close early Saturday morning, Senate Democrats put up a last-ditch amendment. The measure failed, 34-33, with all Republicans except state Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester voting against it.

“Who’s opposed to this?” state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, asked on the Senate floor. “I know the pharmaceutical industry is opposed. But who in this chamber is opposed? Why can’t we do this?”

State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake and chairwoman of the Senate’s health and human services committee, said the provision was the “hardest one” not to include. 

Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said on the Senate floor that he was interested in reconsidering an emergency insulin proposal in 2020, a pledge he repeated in an interview Tuesday.

“It takes some time. In the end, if you want something that works, you really want everybody engaged to the finish line to make sure it’s the right direction,” Gazelka said. “I’m open to continuing to pursue that one to see if we can find something next year.”

Gazelka pointed to the provision that allows pharmacists to refill prescriptions as a sign that the Senate was focused on the issue.

Munson said that provision would help some diabetics, but would be no help to those who can’t afford their insulin.

Modest tax cuts ahead

Walz will likely sign the $48 billion state budget into law later this week. But it won’t happen Wednesday, because the governor has no public events on his schedule.

Because of another provision in the budget, many Minnesotans will see a modest income tax cut in future years. Lawmakers agreed to cut the state’s second income tax bracket – from $26,521 to $87,110 for individuals and $38,771 to $154,020 for married couples filing jointly, to 6.8 percent from 7.05 percent.

For a person making $40,000 a year, that amounts to a $34 savings per year. For a married couple filing jointly and earning $80,000 a year, the savings will be $103.

It’s the first time since 2000 that Minnesota has cut one of its income tax brackets. The provision is separate from several other changes to conform Minnesota’s tax code with the federal system.

“That was a big deal for people that for the first time in 20 years, we lowered an income tax bracket,” Gazelka said. “That was good news.”