Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, spoke with reporters at the Capitol about a work group report focused on the issue of prescription drug affordability. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Attorney General Keith Ellison on Wednesday, Feb. 19, along with lawmakers and stakeholders who served on Ellison's Advisory Task Force on Lowering Pharmaceutical Drug Prices, laid out a set of bills aimed at deflating ballooning prescription drug prices by requiring transparency in pricing practices.

The presentation of the proposals developed over the last year came as the group presented the results of its assessment of what drives the cost of prescription drugs in the state.

Varying regulations for drugs, lack of transparency around the pricing process, efforts by companies along the supply chain to skirt federal patent and drug-exclusivity laws and other practices aimed at increasing companies' profits drove up the cost of drugs for Minnesota patients, the report found.

Nurses, doctors, patients advocates and lawmakers on Wednesday said they hoped the findings would spur action in the Capitol around proposed changes to drug transparency, accountability and bulk purchasing. And if approved, they said the changes could help Minnesotans afford the price of their prescriptions.

"No one in any political party, any ZIP code in our state, any race, gender, religion, ethnic group or income feels like prices for prescription drugs are where they are and should be," Ellison said. "The cure is contained in these recommendations."

But if the divided Legislature fails to take meaningful action this year, or if state agencies are unable to alter or implement policies aimed at driving down the cost of prescription drugs, the report could live on as a guideline for future Legislatures or administrators.

The group also called on the state to better track how much money it spends on prescription drugs, leverage the state's bulk buying power and import the critical access drugs insulin, EpiPens, Truvada and naloxone from a prime vendor. And Ellison said his office would continue bringing litigation against companies that appeared to charge excessive rates for their drugs.

Hikes in the cost of prescription drugs outpaced the rate of inflation between 2013 and 2017 at 28.6% according to the state Department of Health. And drug prices have continued to balloon without a clear explanation for the increases.

In the first six weeks of 2020 alone, manufacturers of more than 2,800 drugs had filed for price increases, with all but 4% of those drugs increasing at rates greater than the general rate of inflation, Stephen Schondelmeyer, a pharmacist and economics expert, said.

"The price increases that we talk about in the report, they're not a relic of the past. They're here today. They keep coming. We need to track them, (or) at a minimum make people aware of them but also do things in the marketplace so that we don't allow this level of price increase, price gouging to continue," Schondelmeyer said. "We're not talking about knocking down every drug price in the country, we're talking about the outliers, the misbehaviors and bringing them into play."

Report spurs renewed push to pass legislation

They pressed for lawmakers to take up a plan to create a state commission to assess changes in drug pricing, pass a bill to ban "price gouging" for prescription drugs, set in place an anti-kickback law and enact additional legislation aimed at boosting transparency into drug pricing. Lawmakers have many of those proposals before them this year. And the bill authors on Wednesday said they were hopeful that the report would give them additional fodder to get them passed, or at least taken up in committee.

Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, is also a physician and has been making a public push to get his bill to create a commission to act as a watchdog over drug pricing before a committee for a hearing.

"For the life of me, I can't understand why we wouldn't want to have a hearing on something like that," Jensen said. Jensen said he planned to take up the bill with the Senate Health Committee chair this week and said he was hopeful she'd reconsider her opposition to the measure.

The House version of the proposal passed through a committee on Wednesday on a voice vote. Pharmaceutical, Research and Manufacturers of America, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Medical Alley Association and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization on Wednesday voiced opposition to the plan, saying it could restrict patient access to news pharmaceutical therapies and stunt potential medical innovations.

separate plan advancing in the Minnesota Senate would require drug manufacturers to alert the Department of Commerce if they plan to increase the price of prescription drugs by a certain amount and provide and explanation for the increase. Those who failed to provide that information could be subject to civil penalties.

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