WORTHINGTON — Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, spoke with a crowd of approximately 20 people Saturday afternoon during a community listening session.
The listening session reflected ongoing efforts of the Attorney General’s Advisory Task Force on lowering pharmaceutical drug prices. Hamilton, who has multiple sclerosis, was eager to serve on the task force, and shared a story Saturday about a prescription drug bill he received not long ago in the amount of $15,000.
“Long story short, I was able to get that situation fixed almost like that,” said Hamilton, explaining that it was because he had a “bully pulpit” as a lawmaker that most citizens don’t. ”When Attorney General Ellison announced that he was going to have this task force, I wanted to get on it right away.”
“The idea is to finish the report sometime in the late fall or early winter and then have it ready for the legislative session so we can have some great ideas for the legislators to deliberate on,” Ellison explained of the task force’s goal.
Heather Klassen, an insurance agent who resides in Jackson and a 2018 candidate for District 23A Representative, was the first to address Elllison and Hamilton.
“This seems to be a really bipartisan issue,” said Klassen, who ran on the DFL ticket. “Everyone is in agreement that it’s a problem and it needs to be fixed ... so why can nothing ever get done? Why can't anything ever get accomplished?”
Ellison answered by stating that skyrocketing prescription drug costs are a result of multiple factors. One, he noted, is the fact that “big companies control a bigger share of the market than they used to … (and) you don’t have enough competition in the market to drive the price down.” But, he stressed, it’s not that simple.
“Brand drugs, they stay protected (by their patent) for 20 years, and you can charge incredible money for some of those brand drugs that public money (helped) create,” Ellison added. There are also companies, he said, that buy drugs for individuals and offer deals, but “gobble up a big chunk of the market” and build up increasing market power.
“We don’t have any external mechanism from keeping the costs from going sky-high,” Ellison said. “We have to ask ourselves, what is the proper role of government, particularly in a highly concentrated market? You can be a good free marketer and still be for breaking up one of these big companies.”
Hamilton agreed that the issue of high-priced prescription drugs should be addressed by people of all political stripes.
“We need complete transparency in the system, and we need to know what the actual costs are,” he said.
Worthington resident Benjamin Weber suggested a need for a crackdown on lawyers who air and publish misleading drug advertising. He also said there must be strong enforcement on contracts between insurance companies and consumers.
“One thing that we can do at the state level is make sure the insurance companies honor those contracts,” Hamilton said.
“You shouldn’t be able to say ‘this person is out of network’ … and then the price is out of control,” chimed in Ellison.
A woman who spoke during the listening session complained about the exorbitant price of insulin.
“I think it’s just terrible that people have to die because medication that they need to live is so expensive,” she said. “In 2004, a vial was $175. In 2019, it’s almost $1,500.”
Hamilton, who serves on the Health and Human Services Committee, answered by stating that he’s working with other state legislators on establishing an emergency insulin supply. Holding back tears, he recalled Alec Smith, a Minneapolis man who suffered from type 1 diabetes, couldn’t pay for his prescription and died as a result.
Ellison, meanwhile, pointed out that some individuals travel to Canada and purchase insulin.
“These are folks that have driven out of desperation,” Ellison said. “You shouldn’t have to violate a law just to live.”
Another woman in attendance inquired about the possibility of “Medicare for All,” with Ellison responding that “radical change” becomes increasingly likely “the more these companies gauge people.”
“We’re going to need a broad cross-section movement, and it’s going to have to be a movement that involves people from various political and ideological lines who are willing to say ‘change has got to come,’” Ellison said.
Agreed Hamilton: “We have to develop the political will.”