This is what it’s come down to.
Gov. Tim Walz had just completed a press conference presentation Thursday morning with three young Type 1 diabetics who had told stories of their struggles to afford the hormone they need to live. When questions began, a reporter asked the DFL governor to react to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka’s morning comments on the issue.
Walz said he hadn’t seen a response from the Nisswa Republican. “When did he say that?” Walz asked. In a tweet that morning, Walz was told by a reporter.
“We have time to tweet but not to meet?” Walz said. “He’s got my cellphone number.”
After talking about whether the solution was the Senate bill without any input from the House or governor, Walz stopped and said: “Could you read it to me? What was the tweet exactly?” Theo Keith of KMSP/FOX9 looked at his phone and read:
Senator Pratt proposed a great solution to the insulin problem. If the governor calls a special session, I will move to suspend the rules so we can take up Pratt’s bill right away. Let’s go! #insulin4all #mnleg @EricPrattMN @GovTimWalz
— Paul Gazelka (@paulgazelka) October 17, 2019
Walz had been angry and frustrated already after reiterating his complaint that a letter he sent to legislative leaders calling for a conference of leaders on the emergency insulin issue had been ignored by Senate Republicans. He had written the letter more than two weeks ago after the Senate GOP had moved significantly toward the House DFL position.
There has been no formal response, though Gazelka issued a statement to media saying conference committees as used during session to negotiate differences between the House and Senate aren’t legal off session.
For the first time since the last session, when Senate GOP leaders had endorsed and then unendorsed a new fee on insulin makers to pay for a program to get insulin to uninsured diabetics, they had proposed a different plan. This one — drafted by Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake — would require the pharmaceutical companies to provide the hormone to those deemed eligible for the emergency program.
DFLers were pleased, but said there still needed to be a plan funded somehow to get insulin immediately to those without to provide time to apply for the Pratt-crafted program.
Still, backers saw a chance to break the impasse over how to get the industry to cover the costs of a program made necessary by rapid increases in the price of insulin. Type 1 diabetics, whose condition was once known as juvenile diabetes because it is usually diagnosed among teens and young adults, report that a vial of the hormone that cost $20 twenty years ago can now cost $400.
While those with insurance are able to afford it, and many health plans have recently reduced out-of-pocket costs, those without insurance or with high-deductible plans find insulin and supplies like test strips to be unaffordable. The death of Alec Smith, who had been rationing his supplies to get to his next payday after aging off his parent’s insurance, galvanized the diabetic community. The Alec Smith Emergency Insulin Act has been at the center of the who-pays dispute.
After a Sept. 28 Senate hearing on the Pratt plan, during which Pratt said he was willing to meet with DFLers on a gap in his plan to help those who need insulin right away, Gazelka dismissed the idea of a conference and said the Pratt plan would provide emergency insulin.
It was his tweet reiterating that position that set Walz off Thursday. He said the statement appeared to mean the Senate wasn’t willing to consider any other ideas from the House.
“That’s not the way the system works,” Walz said. “We have not received any response. I have not received a no. Unfortunately it appears the norm is Twitter is the way to respond to people and it’s our way or no way.”
It got worse. Later in the same press conference, Dana Ferguson of Forum News Service read another tweet that had come in during the press conference, this from Pratt that was itself a response to Rep. Mike Howard, DFL-Richfield, the prime sponsor of the Alec Smith bill:
We’ve invited @GovTimWalz to engage, but I’ve not gotten a response from his office. He seems more interested in having press conferences and fundraising off of the issue rather than actually solving it. I’m ready to meet tomorrow…are you?
— EricPrattMN (@EricPrattMN) October 17, 2019
Walz grew even more frustrated, asking whether Pratt is authorized to speak for the caucus, after his agreement to negotiate the details seemed to have been overridden by Gazelka last month. The tweet from Pratt didn’t get into that, Walz was told.
“Tweeting at me again,” Walz said. “I would just like to set a norm in Minnesota that we don’t legislate by tweet. We conduct our business as professionals do. We will certainly meet.” Walz said he would assume that this is an answer to his call for a formal meeting with House members and governor’s commissioners.
He then turned to his staff at the side of the Reception Room and asked: “I don’t know, do we tweet back at him about how this is going to work?”
His staff later said he would keep his schedule open Friday to meet with Pratt and Howard. The closed meeting was set for 11:30 a.m. Friday. (Update: the meeting took about 30 minutes and ended with a pledge to work on a common proposal.)
Experiences of patients
Before the tweet storm, and Walz’s complaint about the tweet storm, three women with Type 1 diabetes stood with the governor. Two told stories about how the disease had affected them and their families. Katie Scott, 24, said she was diagnosed at age 22 and is dreading the day she can no longer be covered by her parents’ insurance.
“I’m near the end of my parents’ insurance, one-and-a-half years to be exact. I’m running out of time. And right now being a Type 1 with no insurance is a death wish,” she said.
And Alexis Stanley, a 20-year-old Concordia student, said she and her mother cried together after helping a diabetic who had pled for assistance on Facebook. The reason? “Her daughter is going to turn 26 one day and be on her own. Her daughter might have to turn to a Facebook page just to stay alive.”
‘This is a matter of time’
It is difficult to separate the issue of insulin affordability from politics. Taking on Big Pharma has become a bipartisan issue and appearing to be in bed with drug companies is political poison. Pratt’s plan was seen partially as a way to get the GOP on the right side of a potent campaign issue.
Thursday, Walz suggested that if the Legislature were subject to the state Data Practices Act, evidence of cooperation between the Senate GOP and Big Pharma could be revealed.
“For Katie and Alexis, this is a matter of time,” Walz said. “It’s not time to be cute thinking about the 2020 election. We’re going to lose somebody by the time we get together than could have been avoided.”
But Senate Republicans pointed out later in the day that the Walz/Flanagan campaign had used the issue as a fundraising tool, sending out a text message to supporters asking for signatures on a letter urging legislative action. Later in the message, donors were asked to send in money.
“Thank you for helping us keep the pressure on Minnesota Senate Republicans,” it stated. “We succeeded in building one of the strongest campaigns in Minnesota history. Now, we need to carry that energy forward and bring even more folks together around our shared vision of One Minnesota.”