HELENA — Quinn Leighton was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 3. 

Type 1 diabetes is a genetic disease that causes the pancreas to not produce enough insulin, which means people with the disease need to inject insulin to stay alive. 

Because of the condition, Leighton became an activist. They became the leader of T1 International’s Montana Chapter after finding that the Montana chapter didn’t have a leader.

“I don’t really know a life without diabetes,” Leighton said. “It’s pretty much all I know. And so I’ve just been able to talk about my own experiences...even before I took on that role.”

T1 International is a diabetes advocacy organization started in the UK. 

Leighton described the effects of not taking their insulin before a panel of lawmakers Monday, March 29. The affliction is called “diabetic ketoacidosis,” or DKA. 

“Your body starts to — it like starts to hurt everywhere — so you start to get body aches,” Leighton said. “This is when you don’t have insulin in your body and you start to spill ketones into your bloodstream … If you’re spilling enough ketones, and you’re far enough along with DKA, you can try to drink water, but what happens is you just start throwing up.”

As the rising costs of insulin continues to earn national attention and politicians debate the issue on the federal level, here in Montana, Democratic lawmakers have introduced several bills aiming to cap the price of insulin or get insulin to people who can’t afford it. 

But, none of them have been successful.

One of those bills, introduced by Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula, would have helped keep some people from needing to ration their insulin. 

The Montana Insulin Safety Net Program Act would have established a program to get insulin to people who need it before they end up in either the emergency room or the morgue. 

Under the act, people with diabetes would have been eligible for a free bottle of insulin from the state once per year if they have an insurance co-pay of more than $75, were not on Medicaid and had seven or fewer days worth of insulin left. 

Sullivan said she built the bill in the image of Minnesota’s Alec Smith Insulin Affordability Act, which became law in that state in 2020.

“It’s going well so far in Minnesota, so I thought ‘let’s see if we can do this in Montana,’ and institute some sort of insulin safety system.” 

Sullivan ran on a platform of introducing legislation to lower drug costs. This bill is one of her flagships.

“I think I brought eight bills this session, and two of them were the prescription drug bills,” Sullivan said.

The other prescription drug bill she carried would have forced pharmaceutical companies to provide generic drugs or pay a fine. It was tabled in committee. 

The House Human Services Committee tabled the insulin bill Wednesday, March 31. With the deadline for bills to move from the House of Representatives to the Senate on April 8th, it’s unlikely the committee will pull the bill off of the table for another vote.

Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula and Sen. Ellie Boldman D-Missoula, each introduced bills that would have put a cap on inulin prices. 

Karjala’s bill was the most stringent of the bunch. It would have capped insulin prices at $35 for a 30-day supply.

Current insulin runs at near $300 for a vial according to T1 international. A report from the American Diabetes Association shows the cost for a vial of Novolog, a brand of insulin, increased 353% between 2001 and 2016.

Boldman’s bill would have set the maximum insulin price at $40, and Curdy's bill would have set the price to $100 for a 30-day supply.

Both of those bills are dead.

Lawmakers have advanced several bills this session that attempt to address the overall issue of skyrocketing prescription drug prices, but have failed to fully pass any legislation.

Great Falls Republican Senator Steve Fitzpatrick introduced Senate Bill 137 in late January. 

The bill would have forced drug companies and pharmacies to report to the State Auditor’s office with their prescription drug costs. If the cost of a drug changed, the companies would have to report why the cost changed. 

Opponents to that bill representing pharmaceutical companies said it would have only shifted the cost of medication to other countries. They also said lowering costs would halt innovation. 

In their 2020 annual report, Johnson and Johnson made more than $14.5 billion in profit and spent $12 billion on research and development. 

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee tabled the bill in late February. 

James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. 

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