Walz lauds new insulin affordability law, blasts Big Pharma for suing

Nicole Smith-Holt speaks as her husband and Gov. Tim Walz listen.
Gov. Tim Walz, right, listens as Nicole Smith-Holt, right, and her husband, James Holt Jr., parents of Alec Smith, address the media Wednesda in St. Paul as Minnesota's new law mandating that drug makers provide emergency and longer-term insulin supplies to diabetics who can't afford them went into effect. Their 26-year-old son Alec died of diabetic complications in 2017 because he was forced to ration his supply of the drug.
Jim Mone | AP Photo

Updated: 3:23 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz and other supporters of a new law requiring drug makers to deliver emergency doses of insulin at little or no cost to Minnesotans ripped the pharmaceutical industry Wednesday for trying to upend the law hours before it took effect.

In a lawsuit filed late Tuesday, the industry’s trade group asked a federal court to declare the measure unconstitutional and prevent state officials from enforcing it. The move could entangle the law in the courts for months or years.

At a news conference initially called to celebrate the law’s first day, a clearly frustrated Walz blasted the pharmaceutical giants for the suit and its timing. He and other advocates said they were told repeatedly that the industry would not sue over the compromise, bipartisan legislation that eventually became law.

“They did something I didn't think was possible,” the governor said of the industry. “They’re more hated than COVID-19.”

Despite the litigation, officials stressed the Minnesota law is in force.

‘Because they can’

Under the law, people with diabetes who can’t afford the essential medicine will be able to get 30-day supplies with no more than a $35 copay. A separate income-based program is established for those with needs that extend beyond that.

Drug makers are required to participate. If they don’t, they face a series of escalating fines.

The law — the Alec Smith Insulin Affordability Act — is named for a Richfield man who died in 2017 after rationing insulin to stretch out his supply when he couldn’t afford to buy new medicine.

Nicole Smith-Holt, Alec’s mother and a driving force behind the new law, said all Minnesotans should be “disgusted” by the industry and its unexpected decision to sue. “These are the same people who have driven up the price of insulin to unaffordable levels simply because they can,” she said.

Minnesota lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the measure earlier this year. Gov. Tim Walz signed it into law in April. A website and application process was established for the law’s highly anticipated launch.

Lawyers for the trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, however, argue that requiring the drug makers to turn over insulin at little or no cost or face fines is draconian and a violation of the Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment.

“A state cannot simply commandeer private property to achieve its public policy goals,” the lawsuit says.

Industry lawyers point out that the three dominant insulin makers — Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk and Sanofi —  already make emergency insulin available for free or at reduced cost.

‘Nobody should die’

As the legislation moved through the process, there was a lot of talk it could be ripe for a lawsuit. This bill took several years to get across the finish line.

Earlier versions would have imposed hefty fees up front to set up and pay for the program, which insulin makers didn’t like. The compromise was to look toward fines for noncompliance.

Some Republican backers in the Senate said they had been working with drug makers and thought they had found a sweet spot that would head off court fights.

“We look forward to defending the people of Minnesota in court against this morally repugnant behavior,” Minnesota DFL Attorney General Keith Ellison wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Matt Little, DFL-Lakeville, called the pharmaceutical industry’s action “morally bankrupt” and “devoid of humanity.”

Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield and the law’s sponsor, said he was ready for a fight against what he described as “unbridled greed.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said he was disappointed in the legal challenge.

“Senate Republicans remain committed to providing emergency insulin for those in crisis no matter what happens with this poorly timed lawsuit,” he said in written statement.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said he thought lawmakers had arrived at a workable deal.

“I don't know what is next. But nobody should die in MN for lack of insulin,” Abeler tweeted Wednesday.