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Walz open to session on insulin but says lawmakers need to agree first

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Injecting insulin
A patient shows the type of syringe she uses to inject insulin. DFL Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he is willing to call a special legislative session to help diabetics struggling to afford insulin.
Photo for MPR by Alex Kolyer 2011

DFL Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday he is willing to call a special legislative session to help diabetics struggling to afford insulin but said lawmakers must first reach agreement on how to do it.

The cost of the life-saving medicine has spiked in recent years, and Walz held a round table meeting Wednesday with diabetics, family members and others to hear their concerns.

Despite broad support among state lawmakers, a measure to establish an emergency insulin program was left out of this year's budget bills. The program would have provided insulin to people who couldn't afford it, paid for by a fee on drug makers.

Walz said drug companies' unwillingness to pay for the proposed emergency insulin program has been a big hurdle. But he believes legislative leaders can overcome that resistance and put together a bill that he will sign.

"Let's get the leadership to put the right people in the room. Let's work out where the sticking points are," he said. "At that point in time, if we're comfortable that they're there and we're comfortable with the advocacy groups that the piece of legislation that is ready to be bought forward is relatively complete, then we will call them back."

Nicole  Smith-Holt says her son died because he could not afford insulin.
Nicole Smith-Holt said her son died a little more than a year ago because he could not afford insulin, here in Minneapolis on May 9, 2018.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News 2018

The legislation that failed to cross the finish line was known as the Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act, named for a young man who had no insurance and died in 2017 while rationing his insulin. His mother, Nicole Smith-Holt, has been working since then to make insulin more affordable. She told Walz and others at the roundtable discussion that Alec couldn't afford the drug he needed.

"Being the proud 26-year-old, trying to be an independent young man, he didn't call mom and dad for help. He thought maybe I can take a little less insulin, maybe I can miss a dose, maybe I can change my diet, maybe I can stretch this out until payday," Smith-Holt said. "Unfortunately, his body was found three days prior to that payday."

Many diabetics are struggling with the high cost of insulin. Quinn Nystrom of the group Minnesota Insulin for All said she paid $20 a vial 20 years ago. Nystrom said the cost today is about $400 a vial.

"This is my life support. This is not an optional medication. This is not Tylenol. This is not 'I can do this every other day.' That's not an option for people with diabetes. That's something we need to be very clear on here. If I don't have this, I'm dead."

Nystrom and others traveled to Canada last month to buy insulin and related supplies at significantly lower costs than they can in the United States.

Nystrom is among many people who are frustrated with the way the issue recently fell through the cracks at the state Capitol. She told Walz to take action soon.

"Let me be very clear. This bill cannot wait until next session," Nystrom said.

Walz agreed that action is needed. He said the problem of insulin affordability is complex and will take time to solve. He said he has also looked into the possibility of taking executive action on the insulin issue but he believes the Legislature has to make the needed fix.

"We do need to triage on the immediate need on the front end to make sure we don't have another Alec Smith or anyone of you sitting at this table, God forbid, be in that situation, or your children," he said.