MADISON (AP) – Republican leaders in the state Senate stopped short of promising another vote on a bill that would make chemotherapy pills more affordable up for a vote, saying Friday that they need time to digest last-minute revisions that the Assembly made to the measure.
Assembly Republicans approved the measure before adjourning their two-year session early Friday, but they first amended the version the Senate passed earlier this week to allow insurers to charge a copay of up to $100 for a monthly supply of the pills.
The Senate would have to approve the Assembly revisions before it can go to Gov. Scott Walker, and it would have to do so on the last scheduled day of its session, April 1.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Friday that senators were still reviewing the Assembly changes and that he likely won’t comment on the measure until sometime next week.
A spokesman for the bill’s chief Senate sponsor, Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said she’s waiting for a memo from the Legislature’s attorneys describing the changes and wouldn’t comment until Monday.
Paul Westrick, chairman of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Wisconsin chapter’s board, said he remains confident that the Senate will act on the bill.
“This obviously has a lot of momentum,” he said.
The proposal has become a white-hot issue as legislators prepare to hit the campaign trail.
The measure would require health insurers to charge the same price for chemotherapy pills, which can be taken at home, as for intravenous treatments that are administered at hospitals. Supporters say the proposal would help more patients afford a more convenient form of treatment, which can cost thousands of dollars more than intravenous versions.
The health insurance industry initially balked at the plan out of fear it would drive up costs and Republican leaders used procedural moves to bottle up the measure up.
Fitzgerald changed course earlier this week, though, after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported he had enough votes to pass it and cancer treatment advocates pressed for action. The Senate approved the bill on a 30-2 vote on Tuesday, putting pressure on Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, to take action.
Republicans in that chamber changed the bill to include a $100 monthly patient copay cap on buying chemotherapy pills. The change drove the insurance lobby to drop its opposition and adopt a neutral stance.
Minority Democrats argued that the change needlessly put the proposal at risk of passing the Senate again and could still keep the pills too expensive for some patients.
“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.
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.
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.
Walker’s spokeswoman on Thursday said he would sign the bill as amended. She confirmed Friday that his position hadn’t changed.
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.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond contributed to this report.