Walker says he would sign amended chemo bill
MADISON — The state Assembly early Friday passed a bill designed to make chemotherapy drugs more affordable for cancer patients, sending it back to the state Senate where a previous version was approved overwhelmingly earlier this week.
The Republican-controlled Assembly, over objections from Democrats, changed the bill to include a $100 monthly copay cap for cancer patients buying chemotherapy drugs in pill form. Democrats argued that change needlessly puts the proposal at risk of passing the Senate, which is also controlled by Republicans, and could result in some cancer patients not being able to afford the medicine.
“Why do you want to make it tougher for cancer patients in this state?” Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca said during the late-night debate. “Why do you want to do less for cancer patients in this state?”
Two Republicans, Reps. Andre Jacque of DePere and Dean Kaufert of Neenah, joined Democrats in trying to turn back the amendment, but their efforts failed on a 40-54 vote. All but 13 Democrats then joined Republicans in passing the bill 75-18. Thirteen Republicans voted against it.
The bill would require health insurers to charge the same for chemotherapy drugs in pill form, which can be taken at home, as they do for intravenous treatments.
During the sometimes emotional debate lawmakers recounted stories of battling cancer both personally and with family members and friends. Debate began late Thursday night and concluded around 1:30 a.m. Friday with bill sponsor, Majority Leader Pat Strachota, saying she “pledged my honor” that the Senate would pass the bill and that Gov. Scott Walker would sign it.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had said he would be open to voting on the bill again, not knowing what changes the Assembly might make. His spokeswoman said later Friday morning he was still reviewing the amendment and promised a statement later in the day.
Walker’s spokeswoman on Thursday said he would sign the bill as amended and confirmed Friday that his position hadn’t changed.
Just days before the Assembly vote it appeared as if the bill to make potentially life-saving drugs available to cancer patients at a reduced cost would not come up, as Republican leaders initially used procedural moves to bottle it up citing opposition from a handful of lawmakers.
But with the Senate passing the measure overwhelmingly Tuesday, pressure grew on the Assembly to act on its final session day that began Thursday afternoon. Speaker Robin Vos and Strachota announced the deal to include the $100 copay just before the session day began.
Insurance companies, which originally opposed the bill for fear it would raise costs, took a neutral position on it once the $100 copay cap was added. Cancer patient advocates joined Vos at a news conference to announce their support.
Historically, intravenous treatments have been the predominant route for administering chemotherapy to fight a wide variety of cancers. While chemotherapy in pill form has been available for decades, supporters of the bill say more of the new drugs being developed are in pill form, not intravenous form.
But oral chemotherapy can cost thousands of dollars a month, while intravenous treatments at a hospital or doctor’s office often cost only a $20 copayment under a patient’s insurance policy.
Insurance companies typically view the oral drugs as a pharmacy benefit and the intravenous therapy as a medical treatment, which leads to the price disparity. Patients can often be required to pay half of the pharmacy benefit’s cost.
Strachota said the $100 copay is common in the 29 other states with similar laws and makes sense. The change won the support of groups that have been lobbying for passage of the bill for years.
Wisconsin’s bill would take effect in January if passed and signed into law.