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State lawmakers debate high cost of medication

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Rep. Howard highlights his plan for addressing prescription drug prices.
Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, highlights the House DFL plan for addressing prescription drug prices during a state Capitol news conference on Tuesday.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Claire Henn of St. Paul said the drug she relied on for her rheumatoid arthritis jumped from $60 per treatment to $1,400 per treatment. She went without it for three years until a charity helped pay for the drug.

During a state Capitol news conference, Henn said something must be done.

"I'm a senior on a low income with a small pension. There's no way I can pay $1,400 a month for treatment," she said.

McKenzie Shappell, also of St. Paul, shared similar concerns. Shappell, 25, is about to lose health care coverage under his parents' insurance. The pills he needs cost $1,700 for a month's supply.

"As the price of drugs in our state continues to spiral out of control and out of reach for too many of us, it is absolutely imperative that we pass legislation that cements control of prescription drug costs solely with those whose health and healing depends on them and removes it forever from the hands of those who profit from them," said Shappell.

House Democrats want to stop what they see as price gouging by drugmakers. They want more transparency for those companies as well as for pharmacy benefit managers, which administer drug benefits for health plans and employers.

DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, of Golden Valley, shared his own children's reliance on prescription medications and said there is no excuse for inaction this session.

"It is essential for government to take action to make sure that the marketplace does not price people out of their lives," he said.

Rep. Michael Howard, DFL-Richfield, is sponsoring legislation that would provide an emergency supply of insulin to Minnesotans who are unable to afford the drug.

"Unless we stand up to those making obscene profits while Minnesotans suffer, prescription drug prices will continue to soar," said Howard.

Howard's bill would require insulin manufacturers to pay a new fee.

During a House Health and Human Services Finance Division hearing, Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, argued that the bill would increase the cost of health care.

"This is a more than $10 million tax on an already unaffordable drug that will directly increase the cost for nearly everyone who takes insulin in Minnesota," Munson said. "And it's fueling their reason to increase the cost."

Kristina Moorhead, senior director of state policy for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, also criticized the bill. She claimed it doesn't address the real problem. Moorhead blamed supply-chain middlemen for using manufacturer rebates intended for patients.

"We think the patients deserve to be treated with fairness. We need to address the ways medicines are paid for, including making sure that patients are benefiting from these discounts and rebates," Moorhead said.

The committee did not vote on the bills and instead may include them in a larger budget bill later.

Republicans in the Minnesota Senate are also talking about drug prices.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, said they are taking a comprehensive approach.

"We want the industry to change the way they do their pricing, and we believe our bills make that happen," Benson said.