ST. PAUL — Alec Smith died less than a month after he fell off his parents’ health insurance plan because he could not foot the $1,300 bill to refill his insulin.
The 26-year-old died last year from diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious condition that can be prevented with insulin. Smith was trying to stretch out his remaining medication until his next paycheck.
On Tuesday, Dec. 11, his mother, Nicole Smith-Holt, fought back tears as she asked Minnesota’s lawmakers to rein in rising insulin costs next year.
“My son meant the world to me. He was so special,” Smith-Holt said. “He was not meant to leave behind a grieving family, an amazing group of friends or a beautiful 5-year-old daughter.”
The cost of insulin has become a hot-button issue across the nation as the average price of the drug has nearly tripled in the past decade. The price hikes have not gone unnoticed in Minnesota, where more than 300,000 adults have been diagnosed with diabetes.
Attorney General Lori Swanson sued three insulin manufacturers in October, alleging they price-gouged consumers who need the drug to live. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has called on Congress to take action. And state lawmakers who took up the issue at the Capitol on Tuesday vowed to do what they can to ease costs.
At a roundtable discussion that attracted lawmakers, advocates and health professionals, Smith-Holt and others shared their experiences navigating the costly market for the drug.
Cheaper costs abroad
St. Paul resident Lija Greenseid said she pays $697 in Minnesota for a box of five insulin pens that keeps her 12-year-old daughter alive.
Two years ago, Greenseid and her family chose to rent out their home and work remotely while traveling the world. Their journey showed her just how expensive the drug is back home. The same box of insulin pens cost between $40 and $73 in six countries they visited.
“Why is it so hard for us here in the United States to get access to a medication that keeps people alive?” Greenseid said.
'I'm scared to turn 26'
Alexis Stanley was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in April. The 19-year-old is a sophomore at Concordia University in St. Paul.
On Tuesday, she urged lawmakers to take action to prevent drug prices from climbing higher.
“I’m scared to turn 26 and get off my parents’ insurance,” Stanley told them, noting the top age dependent children can be on their parents’ health insurance plan. “I want to make sure that nothing bad happens because no one can afford insulin.”
Lawmakers say action needed
Several lawmakers in attendance expressed desire to bring forward bills that would control the cost of insulin.
Sen. Matt Little, D-Lakeville, said insulin prices are “immorally high” and the Legislature has a moral obligation to address them.
“A person with diabetes cannot negotiate their insulin prices,” said Little, who organized the roundtable. “We need to be aggressive this session and we need to control the cost of insulin.”
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, was the lone Republican on the panel. He said insulin companies are “clearly guilty” and motivated by greed.
“I think for (lawmakers) to do nothing in the face of something we’ve known for a long time would be wrong,” Abeler said.
The Minnesota Legislature’s 2019 session will begin Jan. 8.