Supporters of cancer drug bill not giving up hope

The Wisconsin State Capitol is seen, Oct. 1, 2013.
The Wisconsin State Capitol is seen, Oct. 1, 2013.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Cancer survivors and others who back a bill that would make oral chemotherapy drugs more affordable in Wisconsin are not giving up hope that the measure can pass the Legislature, saying Monday that public pressure could force lawmakers to act now.

The Republican Senate leader has refused to bring the legislation up for a vote and the Assembly is set to adjourn for the year on Thursday without taking action.

“Our only option is that the transparency and public pressure will get these leaders to reconsider the longer term implications for them and their party,” said Paul Westrick, a 16-year blood cancer survivor. Westrick is the board chair for the Wisconsin chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

The proposal, which has bipartisan support in the Legislature, 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. Lawmakers who are against it say they don’t support insurance mandates.

Last week, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t bring it up for a vote because most of the 18 Republican senators didn’t support it, even though a majority of the Senate’s 33 members did.

But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Sunday that at least 13 of 18 Republican senators and all 15 Democrats have taken a public stance in favor of the bill.

“Since 2011 the dynamics in my caucus have not changed,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “Some members support it, and others view it as an expensive mandate. I will continue to work through the issue and see if there is some sort of middle ground we can reach between the two sides, and then ultimately with the Assembly.”

Fitzgerald said Republicans planned to talk about it during a Tuesday closed-door meeting.

Fitzgerald’s brother, former Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, currently works as a lobbyist for Wisconsin Association of Health Plans, a health maintenance organization trade group that is opposed to the bill.

Scott Fitzgerald said his blocking the bill for a vote has nothing to do with his brother’s lobbying against it, noting that the issue pre-dates his brother’s lobbying efforts. The majority leader last week employed a rarely used procedural move to block any senators from forcing a vote on the bill by scheduling it for a public hearing in a committee he controls. Legislative rules don’t allow for bills to be voted on while a hearing is pending.

On Friday, the Assembly version was moved from the Health Committee and into the Insurance Committee. At first, proponents thought that was a sign it may be gaining traction but now believe Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is using the same tactic as Fitzgerald to block a vote, Westrick said.

Vos’s spokeswoman Kit Beyer, when asked about the committee change, said in an email that moving bills from one committee to another was normal procedure at the end of a session “so Democrats don’t try to circumvent the committee process.”

Vos said last week that he had strong concerns with the proposal and did not think it has enough votes to pass the Assembly.

Gov. Scott Walker, when asked about the issue following a bill signing Monday in Janesville, said he hasn’t talked with legislative leaders about it. But Walker said given the support the bill has in the Legislature, he would not be surprised if it passed.

Both the Senate and Assembly were scheduled to be in session on Tuesday but did not have the bill scheduled for a vote. The Assembly’s last scheduled day in session was Thursday, meaning that if the bill doesn’t pass the Assembly by then it is dead for the year. The Senate’s final planned day in session is April 1.

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.

Twenty nine other states have similar laws.

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