Walz blasts big pharma for suing state, says they’re as bad as big tobacco

Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday stood with DFL legislators who unveiled a police and criminal justice reform package on the eve of a special session. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer

Gov. Tim Walz, legislators and activists on Wednesday heralded the start of a new insulin affordability law while blasting a last-minute legal challenge by pharmaceutical companies to permanently block the law. 

The Alec Smith Insulin Affordability Act was named for the 26-year-old Minnesota man who died three years ago after rationing his insulin, like many diabetic Minnesotans who struggle to afford their health care. 

Under the law, diabetics with less than a seven-day supply of insulin left would pay no more than $35 to get a 30-day supply from a pharmacy. Insulin manufacturers would either reimburse pharmacies for the cost of emergency insulin or replace the insulin provided to patients.

The law also requires insulin manufacturers to offer people a 90-day supply for no more than $50 if their family income is less than 400 percent of federal poverty guidelines (about $51,000 for individuals or $104,800 for a family of four).

The emergency program has no income eligibility requirements; the long-term program does. People can go to MNinsulin.org to see if they qualify and apply.

Smith’s mother, Nicole Smith-Holt, and her husband and son were among the activists present to celebrate the program launch.

But late Tuesday, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) — the trade group representing insulin makers — announced it was suing the state of Minnesota to stop the program.

PhRMA Executive Vice President and General Counsel James C. Stansel said of the litigation: “This law is unconstitutional, overlooks common sense solutions to help patients afford their insulin and, despite its claims, still allows for patients to be charged at the pharmacy for the insulin that manufacturers are required to provide for free.” 

Given the lawsuit, Walz, Smith’s family and lawmakers celebrated through gritted teeth.

The law came after more than a year of negotiations. Walz and Democratic lawmakers said they had been assured that if they agreed to a compromise bill, drugmakers wouldn’t sue.

He said when his lieutenant governor texted him the news last night, his response was “What the hell?” He had no inkling this was coming.

“I gotta be honest, they did something I didn’t think was possible: They’re more hated than COVID-19. How do you do this? How do you decide to be so awful on the day before this? They knew what today was. They would’ve anticipated that we were going to bring the family here and talk about this,” he said.

Walz said he’d planned to talk today about how he appreciated PhRMA’s willingness to help.

“This isn’t just about bad timing, this is about bad faith and a whole lot of other things,” Walz said.

Nicole Smith-Holt said drugmakers put profits over people again.

“All Minnesotans should be disgusted with this attitude,” she said. “Last night as the news broke about the lawsuit, I was actively working to ensure people who are at risk of death were able to get the insulin that they need, while PhRMA was actively finding ways to prevent access to affordable insulin.”

Rep. Mike Howard, D-Richfield, who shepherded the bill through the Legislature, said he thinks part of the drugmakers’ intent is to confuse Minnesotans.

“We are moving forward and this law is the law of the land,” he said.