Minnesota task force takes aim at prescription drug prices

A pharmacist at the counter.
A pharmacist works at his desk located next to the prescription pick up counter in New York in May 2013.
Mark Lennihan | AP file 2013

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison unveiled a task force report Wednesday that makes 14 recommendations for lowering prescription drug prices, ranging from new legislation to stronger enforcement.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison introduces Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Jan. 23 at Rep. Ilhan Omar's campaign event.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

Ellison said at a news conference that the pharmaceutical market is "opaque and dysfunctional," which is a barrier to making prescription drugs affordable.

“Very few people understand how this works. How could they? It’s not designed for you to understand it,” the Democrat said.

“In fact, the opacity and confusing nature of it is how price hikes are embedded within it.”

The 14 recommendations fall into three broad categories: to make the markets work better for consumers; to use the government's purchasing power to make drugs more affordable and accessible; and to require more transparency and accountability in the market.

Lawmakers on the task force said legislators are already considering some of the proposals. They include their top priority — a bill to create a prescription drug affordability commission to address pricing — which got its first hearing Wednesday in a House committee. But others that face opposition will have to wait for future legislative sessions. Ellison said he can use his enforcement powers to address some of them.

“If we implement the recommendations, the price of prescription drugs will go down," Ellison said.

“There are recommendations in this report that can and will save lives if they're adopted,” said Nicole Smith-Holt, a task force co-chair. She became a nationally known insulin affordability activist after her son, Alec Smith, died of diabetic complications in 2017 at age 26. He was rationing his insulin because he couldn't afford the $1,300 a month he needed for the drug and related supplies.

“I certainly hope that the future life of this report resides in the hands of new legislators when they come in and get elected in November — that they would look at this to start looking for ideas,” said the other co-chair, Republican Sen. Scott Jensen, of Chaska.

Democratic Rep. John Lesch, of St. Paul, who also served on the task force, said the attorney general's involvement improves the chances that the report will get noticed and overcome the industry's ability in the hallways of the Capitol to bog down proposals for change. One of his bills, which targets price gouging, is among the recommendations.

“I know as a person who has carried a bill affecting the health care industry that the second you drop that bill, you can't swing an IV drip bag in the rotunda without hitting a lobbyist that represents the health care industry,” Lesch said.

But a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry said in an interview that the report unfairly singled out the manufacturers, even though much of the spending on drugs goes to other companies in the supply chain, such as pharmacy benefit managers.

“The attorney general’s report acknowledged that there are many actors that impact what a patient pays for their medicine, yet what he rolled out was a laundry list of harmful policies that largely overlook the impact that all of those actors have on what patients are paying,” said Nick McGee, director of public affairs for PhRMA, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Ellison said he now plans to hold a series of community meetings across the state to talk about the report and build support for implementing its recommendations.

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