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Florida bill to cap insulin costs is likely doomed. Here’s why.

“People need insulin like they need water,” said Rep. Melony Bell, whose daughter has Type 1 diabetes.
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Mar. 24, 2021|Updated Mar. 24, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A bipartisan bill that would cap the cost of insulin unanimously cleared a Senate committee Wednesday — the first step toward the bill becoming law.

But the proposal, which is opposed by the powerful drug and insurance companies, almost certainly won’t get much further.

“I’m going to vote for the bill, but it’s going to probably not go anyplace again this year,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, Wednesday as lawmakers on the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee took up Senate Bill 786. The bill cleared the committee unanimously.

That proposal, offered by Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, would cap the cost of insulin at $100 per month for insured patients. Even with insurance, some with diabetes currently pay much more than that per month for a drug they need in order to survive.

Broxson is right about the future of the bill. Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, the sponsor of the House version of the insulin bill, said Wednesday she hasn’t been able to get the bill moving in her chamber. Bell said she’s gotten an idea why based on conversations with House leadership.

“We don’t want to go against the insurance companies because we don’t want to go against the free market,” Bell said, summing up what she said was the sentiment of House leaders.

Bell, whose daughter has Type 1 diabetes, said she has heard from dozens of families who struggle with the cost of insulin.

“People need insulin like they need water,” Bell said.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Chris Sprowls did not respond to requests for comment. A similar insulin bill introduced last year made some headway in the Senate, but failed to advance in the House amid the opposition of then-Speaker José Oliva.

People with diabetes either cannot naturally make enough insulin — a hormone that helps regulate the body’s blood sugar — or cannot properly use the insulin their body does make. The disease is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The American Diabetes Association estimates that nearly 2 million Floridians have some form of diabetes. One in four insulin users say they have to do things like ration the use of the drug or choose between insulin and housing because of the cost. (Less expensive forms of insulin, which cost $25 to $75 per vial, do exist, but they require a patient to maintain a strict eating plan.)

A 2020 study by the RAND Corporation showed that Americans pay far more for insulin than comparable countries.

The government taking action to lower the cost of prescription drugs is a widely popular, bipartisan idea. Last year, President Donald Trump’s administration capped insulin co-pays at $35 per month for some Medicare plans. At least 14 other states have capped insurance co-pays for insulin at $100 or less, the Diabetes Association notes.

Cruz’s proposal passed the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee unanimously Wednesday.

Insurers argue Cruz’s bill does nothing to actually make insulin cheaper, but just makes insurers pay more for the drugs. Those costs are eventually passed along to insured Floridians, they argue.

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Proponents, however, point to evidence from other states that shows that overall insurance costs only increase slightly as a result of the caps — if at all. They tout a 2019 Millman study, commissioned by a major drug manufacturer, that showed that a mandatory $0 insulin copay — more generous than Cruz’s proposal — would raise the cost of a given health care plan $5 per year.

On Wednesday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were sharply critical of the drug companies, noting that just three firms — Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi — have essentially full control of the insulin market in the U.S. The drug’s price tripled from 2002 to 2013, and doubled from 2012 to 2016, according to a Senate committee bill analysis.

Broxson likened the companies raising insulin prices to the actions of a “cartel.” Cruz, in an interview, said the high cost of insulin is an example of “price gouging at its finest.”

Drug companies, for their part, blame insurance companies for the high cost to consumers. A spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which is lobbying on the bill, contended that the cost of the drugs has gone down in recent years — particularly for customers who take advantage of rebate programs. But insurers aren’t sharing rebate savings with consumers, she said.

While drug companies and insurance providers point the finger at one another, lawmakers hoping to cap insulin costs will likely have to try again at a later date.

“I’m not going to let (the bill) just sit here,” Bell said. “I’ll run it again next year.”

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