MADISON, Wis. (AP) – There are enough votes in the state Senate to pass a bipartisan bill that would make cancer drugs more affordable, but Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Wednesday he won’t allow it to come up because a majority of Republicans don’t support it.
Fitzgerald commented when asked about an unusual procedural move that prevented any senator, Republican or Democrat, from attempting to force a vote on the measure.
“We just don’t want that to happen with an issue we take very seriously,” Fitzgerald said.
The bill would require insurance plans overseen by the state to provide coverage for expensive forms of chemotherapy drugs that patients take as pills rather than injections. While a broad array of cancer support and health advocacy groups support the measure, it is opposed by health insurers that fear it will drive up costs.
Cancer patients have been pushing for the bill for years, citing insurance co-pays for the oral chemotherapy drugs that can be tens of thousands of dollars a year or even more. The bill would require health insurance companies to cover the pill forms of the chemotherapy drugs the same way they cover other cancer drugs that aren’t pills.
Wisconsin health insurance companies oppose the bill, arguing that it would limit their ability to design health plans and set a bad precedent.
People are passionate on both sides of the issue, Fitzgerald said, making it difficult to find a compromise.
“A lot of people are kind of dug in on it,” he said.
Fitzgerald declined to say whether he supported the bill, but in a later statement said he hoped an agreement could be reached next week.
But Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, who supports the proposal, said Republican senators are blocking it because of pressure from the insurance industry.
“What they’re actually standing in the way of somebody who is desperately sick and their medicine,” Erpenbach said. “I don’t know if you can get any more hurtful than that.”
Fitzgerald said the bill has a majority of support in the 33-member Senate where Republicans hold an 18-15 advantage. But because a majority of the 18 senators don’t back it, Fitzgerald said he wasn’t ready for it to be voted on.
“We just don’t have consensus,” he said.
The bill is sponsored by Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, of River Hills, making Fitzgerald’s decision not to schedule it for a vote all the more surprising.
“She hopes to have a vote on the bill soon,” Darling’s spokesman Bob Delaporte said in an email.
Time is running out. The Senate is only scheduled to be in session two more days, Tuesday and April 1, before adjourning for the year.
Fitzgerald was able to block any attempt to vote on the bill Wednesday by scheduling the measure for a hearing before the Senate Organization Committee. That committee, which he chairs, is in charge of setting the agenda for the Senate and does not hold hearings where testimony is taken.
However, Senate rules don’t allow for lawmakers to force a vote on bills that have a hearing pending. Once the Senate adjourned on Wednesday, the hearing was canceled.
The bill has 16 co-sponsors in the Senate and 42 of 99 lawmakers in the Assembly, where it was introduced by Rep. Pat Strachota. She was selected last week as majority leader and as such plays a lead role in setting the Assembly’s agenda.
The Assembly is not scheduled to vote on the bill when it next meets on Tuesday. It plans to be in session only one other day, March 20, before adjourning for the year.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said his caucus had not discussed the bill yet, but it was his impression there was not enough support to pass it.
Twenty-six states other states have laws in place requiring similar coverage for cancer drugs, no matter how they are delivered.