Wisconsin Senate passes cancer drugs bill

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

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Chemotherapy pills that cancer patients can take at home would be more affordable under a bill that the Wisconsin Senate passed Tuesday – the last planned meeting day of its two-year session.

The Republican-controlled Senate spent a busy final day passing more than 50 bills, including one that would require outside investigations of instances in which people die while in police custody. Others passed would limit when DNA samples can be taken during arrests under a law set to take effect next year and allow the use of a marijuana byproduct to help treat children with seizures.

All of the measures before the Senate on its final session day have previously passed the Assembly and now head to GOP Gov. Scott Walker for his consideration. The Assembly, which Republicans also control, finished its work last month.

The oral chemotherapy bill was one of the most hotly debated measures in the waning weeks of the two-year session. The Senate passed it Tuesday on a bipartisan 26-7 vote, with 16 Republicans and 10 Democrats in favor. Five Democrats and two Republicans voted against it. The Senate passed a similar version last month on a 30-2 vote, with two Republicans against.

The Republican-sponsored measure would require health insurers to charge the same price for chemotherapy pills, which can be taken at home, as for intravenous treatments, which are administered at hospitals. Supporters say the proposal would help more patients afford a more convenient form of treatment; the pills can cost thousands of dollars more than intravenous chemotherapy.

But Democrats argued that the bill as written, which the Assembly amended to cap copayments at $100 a month, leaves too many loopholes for insurance companies to charge more in co-insurance and deductibles.

Patients could be liable for hundreds of dollars a month in copays because many prescriptions require taking a combination of chemotherapy drugs, said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville.

“It’s a complete giveaway to the health insurance industry and the expense of people who have cancer,” said Cullen, a former health insurance company executive and a cancer survivor.

Bill proponents, though, said costs would still go down with the law change, even with the copay.

“This is a compromise we need to look at and we need to pass,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, of River Hills. Darling said she would work with the state insurance commissioner to make sure the bill is enacted as intended and copays are capped at $100 a month.

Cancer support advocates, including a coalition of 28 patient groups, medical providers, health care institutions, and others who have lobbied for years to get the bill passed, issued a statement praising its passage.

Walker has said he will sign the bill. It would take effect in January.

The police custody bill would require Wisconsin police departments to enlist outside investigators to look into officer-involved deaths. It was introduced in response to a number of high-profile cases involving people who died while in police custody over the last decade. It would not apply to deaths of inmates in local jails or state prisons.

Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union, praised the bill. He called it “common sense reform that will serve to reassure the public that when a death occurs of someone in police custody, that it will be independently and appropriately reviewed.”

Barring a special session later this year, Tuesday also would mark the last day of voting for four retiring senators who have a combined 94 years of experience in the Legislature. Their terms run through the end of the year.

Three Democrats – Cullen, Bob Jauch, and John Lehman – and moderate Republican Sen. Dale Schultz, who frequently broke ranks with the GOP, are not seeking re-election. Lehman is running for lieutenant governor.

Republicans have an 18-15 majority in the Senate.

While the Legislature doesn’t plan to return again this year, Walker has said he may call a special session to pass a bill requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls, if courts currently considering such a ban rule against it.

The Assembly is also considering whether to return to possibly expel, censure or reprimand former Republican Majority Leader Bill Kramer who faces two felony counts of second-degree sexual assault on allegations of groping a woman three years ago.

Kramer has said he won’t run for re-election, but he’s also refusing to resign his seat and give up his $49,943-a-year job. Assembly Republican leaders were to meet Thursday to discuss their next moves.

Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chris Larson said Tuesday that the end of the two-year session will be known more for what was not done – like ignoring Democratic pleas to raise the minimum wage and create a nonpartisan redistricting process – than what was accomplished.

“I think it’s appropriate we’re ending on April Fool’s Day,” Larson said.

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