Walker says he would sign cancer drugs bill

Gov. Scott Walker answers reporters' questions March 19, 2014, at the Wisconsin’s Governor’s Conference on Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Appleton.
Gov. Scott Walker answers reporters' questions March 19, 2014, at the Wisconsin’s Governor’s Conference on Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Appleton. (WLUK/Chad Doran)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday that he would sign into law a bill that would make chemotherapy drugs in pill form more affordable for cancer patients, putting pressure on his Republican allies in the Assembly to follow the Senate’s lead by approving the measure.

Republican leaders in the Legislature have been slow to act on the bill, which is backed by a wide variety of cancer support groups, health advocates and others. The measure would require that health insurance companies charge the same for chemotherapy drugs in pill form, which can be taken at home, as they do for the less expensive intravenous treatments administered at hospitals.

The Senate voted 30-2 on Tuesday to pass it. That put the bill in the Assembly, where Republican Speaker Robin Vos had blocked a vote last week and refused to allow Democrats to force a vote on it Tuesday.

Vos ultimately scheduled the bill for a vote on Thursday, but said the Assembly may change it. Changes could kill the bill because it has to pass both chambers in identical form. The Assembly’s last planned day in session is Thursday, while the Senate was to come back for one more day on April 1.

Speaking to reporters in Appleton, Walker said he would sign the version of the bill that the Senate passed and that he doesn’t want the Assembly to make any changes to it.

“I would sign the bill that the Senate passed so I’m hopeful that’s the bill that will ultimately make it out of the Assembly,” Walker said. Later in the day, when speaking to reporters in Madison, Walker said he had been talking with Assembly leaders urging them to pass the bill.

“I don’t think anybody wants to go through this whole process and then have it stuck,” Walker said.

Vos did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. The bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, Republican Majority Leader Pat Strachota, was in a meeting and also didn’t immediately respond to a phone request for comment.

The sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, said she hoped the Assembly passed the measure “without needless amendments.”

“Cancer patients shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get the life-saving drugs they need to survive,” Darling said. “Any changes by the Assembly may jeopardize the future of this vital bill.”

The Senate would consider voting on the bill again if the Assembly makes changes, depending on what they are, said Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

Walker’s comments, together with the overwhelming Senate vote, should spur the Assembly to pass the bill unchanged, said Paul Westrick, a blood cancer survivor and the board chair for the Wisconsin chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Members representing a coalition of about two dozen groups that support the bill were lobbying Assembly members on Wednesday and also planned to do more work on Thursday, Westrick said.

While Walker’s comments are a good sign for bill backers, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson said he’s concerned the Assembly will make changes to the proposal that will result in it not passing.

“I’m very skeptical until I see it passed,” Larson said in reaction to Walker’s pledge to sign it.

What to do with the oral chemotherapy bill is just one of several big decisions that the Assembly was scheduled to take up on what was planned to be its last day in session Thursday. Others include:

- School accountability: The Senate passed a limited bill that would require all schools – public, private and charter – to report the same performance information to the state and have that data appear on report cards, making it easier for the public to compare them. The Assembly was considering a more far-reaching proposal that calls for sanctions for poor-performing schools, but Senate leaders have said they won’t pass that.

- Early voting: The Senate passed a bill that limits the hours of in-person absentee voting in the two weeks leading up to elections, barring it on weekends and past 7 p.m. The Assembly was expected to go along with that, despite objections from Democrats who argue it will reduce turnout and is aimed at preventing the Democratic strongholds of Madison and Milwaukee from holding extended voting hours.

- Asbestos lawsuits: Veterans groups are urging the Assembly to reject a bill, already approved by the Senate, that opponents argue would make it more difficult to collect damages in asbestos-exposure lawsuits. Republican supporters say it’s needed to prevent those suing from getting claims from both businesses and trusts set up to handle such lawsuits.

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