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Lawmakers aim to deflate ballooning drug prices at Rochester meeting

Health experts, physicians and pharmacists on Wednesday weighed in on why prescription drug prices have ballooned in Minnesota and elsewhere and what the state could do to stave off the increases.

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Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL – Rochester) chairs a legislative mini-session discussion on pharmaceutical drug prices for Minnesota legislators at a Health and Human Services public hearing at UMR Rochester Wednesday. (Ken Klotzbach/kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
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Health experts, physicians and pharmacists on Wednesday, Oct. 2, weighed in on why prescription drug prices have ballooned in Minnesota and elsewhere and what the state could do to stave off the increases.

The conversation was one of the first meetings of the Minnesota House of Representatives' mini session in the southeastern part of the state. Minnesota lawmakers met with experts at the University of Minnesota Rochester in an effort to draft policy changes based on professional insight.

Lawmakers on the panel agreed the state could take additional steps to make prescription drugs more affordable for Minnesotans but they split at times on the best way to do that. And even before the panel discussion started, a partisan rift arose about what was being discussed at the hearing and what wasn't.

Republican lawmakers said their calls to hold hearings about top-level turnover and several reports of misspending at the Minnesota Department of Human Services hadn't been taken seriously by Democrats who control the House. They said people across greater Minnesota shared those concerns and should get answers as House lawmakers fan out to Winona and surrounding cities.

Their concerns came the same day DHS leaders reported that the department had spent $3.7 million between 2014 and 2016 in unallowable costs to managed care companies for Minnesotans who'd died. The numbers came to light as part of a multi-state federal audit.

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"We feel this is the straw that broke the camel's back," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, told reporters. "We've been asking for answers and demanding information for months and we've been getting nothing. We believe Minnesotans deserve answers."

Democrats, meanwhile, said the mini session was supposed to be free of some of the political bickering that plagues the Legislature. And they asked that lawmakers take the opportunity to hear from Minnesotans outside the Twin Cities what their top concerns are.

"It's not in the interest of Minnesotans for us to create a stage for partisan potshots," House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park said. "I think if we spent all the time that people dedicate to looking for partisan potshots to solving problems together collaboratively, to address the concerns we discover, we would get so much done for Minnesotans."

How to make drugs cheaper?

More than two dozen lawmakers sat in on the hearing Wednesday and asked health experts what they could do to help bring down the cost of prescription drugs.

So what ideas did the doctors, pharmacists and other health experts float? They suggested:

- Requiring drug companies to price based on a medication's value in terms of alleviating symptoms or extending life

- Tying drug price increases to the rate of inflation

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- Setting up nonprofit pharmacies that carried generic drugs

- Leveling the playing field for independent pharmacies competing against pharmacy benefit manager-owned pharmacies

State lawmakers said they would consider those proposals as well as bills that would allow the state to buy pharmaceuticals in bulk for Minnesotans on state health programs and give the attorney general the power to enforce civil sanctions against drugmakers that "unconscionably" raise prices for essential medications.

And Rep. Kelly Morrison, who is also a doctor, said she would again put forward a proposal to require drug manufacturers to publicly explain why they bring medications to the market with high prices or why they hike prices for the drugs. That measure fell short in an end-of-session conference committee earlier this year.

"I think it’s an important piece of peeling away the onion in termsof why drug prices have grown so out of control," Morrison, a Deephaven Democrat, said.

And Eric Tichy, one of the pharmacists who sets the medication formulary at the Mayo Clinic, said the private market could lead the way in terms of driving down prices.

The Mayo Clinic along with more than 1,000 other hospital systems and three philanthropic organizations came together to create a nonprofit that can contract to manufacture some of the most in-demand generic drugs for hospitals. Civica Rx, the group of hospital groups, delivered its first medication Wednesday in Utah.

The Mayo Clinic alone might not have the scale to change the pricing structures alone, Tichy said, but bringing hospitals together in the nonprofit structure could help pressure other drug manufacturers to drive down their prices.

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"When we can collaborate with 1000 other hospitals, then we have enough scale to do that," Tichy said.

Insulin debate boils up

Earlier in the day, Gov. Tim Walz called on Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, to come to the table to hash out some of the differences between two proposals to provide access to emergency insulin.

The call comes a day after Walz sent a letter to Gazelka and Hortman asking them to appoint lawmakers to a conference committee to hammer out a bill ahead of a special session. Hortman said she had asked lawmakers and was ready to set a 60-day deadline to reach a deal.

But Gazelka said the Legislature couldn't put together a conference committee outside of legislative session and he favored a proposal put forth by Senate Republicans over a Democrat-authored measure, which he said would create "another state bureaucracy."

"The House has said they want a conference, I want a conference and now we have 34 senators who could make that decision," Walz told Forum News Service on Wednesday. "It’s very clear the senator will own the insulin issue if he’s the one who chooses (not to agree to a conference committee)."

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Mayo Clinic professor Dr. Vincent Rajkumar gives an overview of pharmaceutical drug prices for Minnesota legislators at a Health and Human Services public hearing at University of Minnesota Rochester Wednesday. (Ken Klotzbach/kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Related Topics: TIM WALZPAUL GAZELKA
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