Monday’s announcement of an agreement on insulin assistance was truly less than it sounded.
While the Legislature’s leaders on health care policy may have agreed on what to do to help Minnesota’s diabetics pay the skyrocketing price tag for their insulin injections, there is no agreement on how to pay for that assistance. And without a funding mechanism, there is no agreement, and there will be no special session.
The partisan division on funding is clear. Gov. Tim Walz and the Democrats want to levy a fee on insulin manufacturers. The Republicans want to take the money out of other health care programs.
And beyond that, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka says he’s wary of giving the troubled health department another program to create and administer.
But even if the funding dispute is resolved, even if Walz calls a special session and the Legislature passes an insulin subsidy measure, the underlying problem will continue to fester. The spirit of the original patent on insulin will continue to be violated and the market will continue to be distorted.
When insulin was developed in 1923, the co-inventors sold the patent to the University of Toronto for $1. They wanted everyone who needed their medication to be able to afford it. Frederick Banting, one of the three, wouldn’t even put his name on the patent, saying it would be unethical for a physician to profit from such a life-saving discovery.
Big Pharma has no such qualms. Over the intervening 90-plus years the patent has been tweaked and advanced, sometimes in major improvements and others less so — but always keeping the biologic under patent.
While most diabetics could use an older version of insulin — a version no longer covered by patent — physicians almost always prescribe one of the newer versions.
The result: Generic insulin is virtually unheard of in the United States, and the price tag has tripled over the past decade.
Consider this: The United States represents 15 percent of the global insulin market, but it generates about half the pharmaceutical industry’s insulin revenue. That is a broken market.
Whatever form of assistance the Legislature devises, it will merely subsidize Big Pharma’s insulin racket.