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Wisconsin Senate passes cancer drugs bill

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Associated Press
March 18, 2014

MADISON — The Wisconsin state Senate passed a proposal Tuesday that would give cancer patients access to less expensive chemotherapy drugs in pill form, sending the bill to the Assembly where its future remained in doubt. 

The bipartisan 30-2 vote happened after Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald agreed to allow the bill to proceed after using a procedural move to hold it up last week because of opposition by two GOP senators. Fitzgerald voted for the bill. 

Democratic backers said the Senate's action will mean nothing if the Assembly takes no action before adjourning for the year on Thursday. The Assembly must pass the bill and Gov. Scott Walker would have to sign it for it to become law. 

“It will be the height of cynicism for this Legislature to adjourn leaving these people simply to wonder who to blame, who to hold accountable, because the clock ran out,” said Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar. If the Assembly doesn't pass the bill, “this vote will mean nothing,” Jauch said. 

The proposal was not on the Assembly's tentative agenda for Thursday and Speaker Robin Vos said a decision on whether to schedule it for a vote wouldn't be made until Republicans had a chance to discuss it. That would happen on Thursday, he said. 

Democrats, cancer survivors and other advocates who praised the Senate's action kept up the pressure on the Assembly to not leave without also passing it. 

“Today doesn't matter if we don't get it done in the Assembly,” said Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. “For people who are fighting for their lives, some hope is sometimes all that they have. And I don't want to give them false hope.”

It appears that there are enough votes in the Assembly to pass it, but Vos is using a procedural move to stop a vote forcing it to come up. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which polled all 132 state lawmakers, found that at least 61 of 99 Assembly members supported it. That included all 39 Democrats and at least 22 Republicans. 

The bill would require health plans to provide the same coverage for chemotherapy drugs in pill form, which can be taken at home instead of at the hospital, and the drug's less-expensive intravenous form. Twenty-nine other states have similar laws.

No one spoke out against the bill during the Senate debate, including the two lawmakers who voted against it — Sens. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Paul Farrow, R-Village of Pewaukee. Both previously said they were concerned about the measure being a mandate on insurance companies. Health insurers that opposed the bill also said it would drive up costs. 

Sen. Alberta Darling, the Republican sponsor of the bill and a 10-year cancer survivor, said, “No matter what happens in the Assembly, we're going to be doing the right thing.”

Walker said Monday that he didn't know enough about the measure to say whether he would sign it if the Legislature passed it. 

His Democratic challenger, former state Commerce Secretary Mary Burke, said she supports it and would sign it. 

“This should be an easy, common sense decision,” Burke said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it seems like once again we see special interests taking precedence over the needs of the people of Wisconsin.”



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