Top Senate Republican expects insulin bill to return in 2020

Republican Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Republican Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka poses Tuesday in St. Paul after switching his attire from suits to jeans now that that the Minnesota Legislature's 2019 regular and special sessions are over.
Steve Karnowski | AP Photo

Legislation to help make emergency insulin supplies more affordable for diabetics who lack adequate insurance failed to make it across this finish line in last week's special session despite a public outcry, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Tuesday that he expects the issue will return next year.

The proposal was named after Alec Smith, a 26-year-old uninsured Minneapolis man who died in 2017 of diabetic complications because he was rationing his insulin, the price of which has tripled in the past decade. One of its leading champions was his mother, Nicole Smith-Holt, who vowed to keep up the fight.

Versions of the "Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act" were included in the original health and human services funding bills that passed the House and Senate. House Democrats and Senate Republicans on the conference committee that hammered the final package blamed the other side for how the proposal was dropped in the final hours of negotiations. Efforts by several lawmakers to restore the language failed during the one-day special session late last week.

"This is not over. We are not giving up," Smith-Holt said at the time. "We're going to come back stronger than ever next session. We're going to keep fighting to hold big pharma accountable and make life-saving medicines like insulin more affordable and accessible for all."

Gazelka said in an interview Tuesday that lawmakers did approve other measures aimed at controlling prescription drug costs. But he said the details of the insulin bill couldn't be worked out in time. And he said that was true of many proposals that stalled out late in the negotiations.

"If it wasn't ready for prime time, that stuff started getting tossed," he said. "The stuff that's good will come back."

The regular session convened in January with a new Democratic governor in Tim Walz, a new Democratic majority under Speaker Melissa Hortman in the House, and Republicans maintaining a narrow majority in the Senate under Gazelka. The most important task for lawmakers was to find ways to bridge their differences and pass a new two-year budget for state government.

Lawmakers had to go into overtime but approved a $48 billion budget early Saturday, a 6 percent increase over the current budget, which expires June 30. Walz is likely to sign the package Thursday or Friday, spokesman Teddy Tschann said.

Insulin isn't the only piece of unfinished business that's likely to come up in the 2020 session, which begins Feb. 11. Gazelka said he expects a bigger public works borrowing package, also known a bonding bill next year. Gazelka, Walz and Hortman set a $500 million target when they negotiated the overall budget framework, and they presumed it would focus on noncontroversial wastewater infrastructure, roads and higher education facilities. But House Democrats and Republicans couldn't agree on details in time so the idea died in the special session.

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