As someone with close relatives and friends who are insulin-dependent diabetics, the most disappointing outcome of this year’s legislative session was the failure of Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act to be enacted into law.
Even more disappointing was the fact that our state senator Dr. Scott Jensen — who was a co-author on the bill — ended up voting against it when it mattered most.
Alec’s bill — named after a 26-year old restaurant manager who died in 2017 after rationing his insulin because he couldn’t afford the high cost — is a common-sense solution to this problem that has been vetted through months of consultation with legislators, health and pharmacy industry experts, and the diabetes community. It relies on existing technology infrastructure and has a simple enrollment process. Under the terms of the bill, low- and middle-income Minnesotans with incomes too high to qualify for public assistance can get a 90-day emergency supply of insulin at reduced cost.
The program would not be funded by taxpayer dollars. Instead, the program would be funded by a fee on insulin manufacturers. This is an important component of the program, and let me explain why.
Insulin manufacturers are a major cause of this problem. Even though insulin has been commercially manufactured for the treatment of diabetes since 1923, the three companies that control the patents have exploited loopholes in the law to prevent an inexpensive generic version of insulin from being available to patients.
And those companies have fully exercised that leverage — the price of insulin has more than tripled in the last decade. Over this time, the three insulin manufacturers have all recorded record revenue and profits.
But because of these skyrocketing prices, about 25% of patients have been forced to ration their insulin to make their supply last longer — a practice that can lead to complications such as kidney failure, blindness, or in some cases (like Alec Smith) death.
American diabetics also pay far higher prices for their insulin than most other countries in the world. A box of insulin pens that costs $700 here costs $73 in Germany, $65 in Canada, $61 in Italy, $57 in Israel, and $40 in Taiwan.
Since the legislative session ended, Sen. Jensen and some of his Republican colleagues have come forward with a new plan. While this plan shares many of the same elements of Alec’s bill, it has one key difference.
The new GOP plan would principally rely on donations to supply the emergency insulin to patients, with taxpayers making up any shortages. It should be unacceptable to leave taxpayers on the hook for a crisis that is largely created and sustained by the practices of insulin manufacturers and the pharmaceutical industry.
Jensen and the rest of the Legislature need to make insulin manufacturers accountable for their out-of-control profiteering. The Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act is one necessary step to make that happen, and I urge Jensen to support it.