'Day of reckoning' imminent if GOP won't work with Democrats on drug prices, governors say

Get on board with proposals at the state or federal level to drive down the cost of prescription drugs and expand access to health care, or risk 2020 campaigns centered around that issue, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz along with U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Tina Smith, D-Minn., said.

The warnings came at a roundtable discussion on the price of prescription drugs held at a Minneapolis community health center. A handful of patient advocates facing hefty bills for their medications and treatment shared their stories, and health experts echoed calls for a change at the top level that could shrink the cost of common drugs like Suboxone, which helps those with opioid addictions, or insulin, which helps people with diabetes manage their blood sugar.

In the Republican-led Wisconsin Statehouse and the split Minnesota Legislature, the Democratic governors face a barrier in passing some of the measures they’d like to see advance, they said, due to “lack of political will.” And while Evers and Walz said they’d do what they could to push forward with emergency insulin access in Minnesota and Medicaid expansion in Wisconsin, they’d have to wait until 2020 to potentially make more lasting change.

“This is a political will issue, but let’s be very clear, the only reason we’re not going to hold that hearing and the only reason that’s not going to happen is they believe that the pharmaceutical companies don’t want to pay their fair share on this,” Walz said about the emergency insulin measure. “There will be a day of reckoning. Voters will speak at the polls and they will say it is both morally, ethically, economically the right thing to do.”

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Walz again encouraged Republican leaders in the Minnesota Senate to take up a proposal to make drug companies foot the bill for an emergency insulin program in the state. The House of Representatives passed the bill earlier this year, but the Senate voted it down as an amendment to another bill. A key committee chair has refused to schedule a hearing on the bill.

Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, on Friday pointed to Minnesota insurers’ recent decisions to cap the amount those with diabetes would pay for insulin as a step in the right direction in increasing access to the drug. He also said the Senate is still working to find a plan to expand emergency insulin access.

“In light of positive changes for insulin coverage from Minnesota health insurers, comments about campaign politics from the governor are not helpful,” Gazelka said in a statement. “We already banned insurers from profiting off of insulin last session, and we know the top use of reinsurance funds are for diabetic care. Even with these changes, the Senate is looking at the best options to help an increasingly smaller group of people that would still need emergency assistance.”

Evers, too, said lawmakers in the Badger State could pay a price at the polls if they don’t work with him to expand Medicaid and bring down the price of prescription drugs.

“There will be political consequences at some point in time for people that blocked opportunities for people to live lives without fear,” Evers said. “People are going to lose their jobs in the Legislature.”

Spokespeople for Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

At the federal level, too, Baldwin and Smith said they faced opposition to their efforts to boost price transparency by requiring pharmaceutical companies to explain why they plan to hike drug prices. Smith said her campaign for reelection next year would likely center around health care as a key issue. Former Congressman and Republican Jason Lewis a day earlier launched his bid to take Smith’s seat.

Minnesotans and Wisconsinites with medical conditions that require expensive treatment weighed in Friday along with health experts, calling for answers to ease the financial burden of living with a disease or preexisting condition.

“The business is such that we have generated a product that our customers cannot afford,” Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School, said. “If we are not able to adhere to what I consider to be a fundamental human right, which is access to health care, we will fail in our respective positions.”

Alexis Stanley, a 20-year-old college student at Concordia University in St. Paul, said she felt guilty about her mother having to stay in a job she doesn’t love so she can maintain health insurance for herself and her daughter. Stanley was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes last year and has been trying to raise awareness about the cost of insulin, which she needs to manage her disease, in the months since.

“We shouldn’t have to jump through hoops just to live,” Stanley said. “It’s oxygen, it’s water, it’s food, it’s everything, and the price is outrageous. How many people do we have to have die from rationing their insulin because they can’t afford it until we make a change?”

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