MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin state Senate passed a proposal Tuesday that would give cancer patients access to less expensive chemotherapy drugs in pill form, sending it for a vote in the Assembly, where its future remained in doubt.
The bipartisan Senate 30-2 vote happened after Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald agreed to allow the bill to proceed after using a procedural move to hold it up last week because of opposition by two GOP senators. Fitzgerald voted for the bill.
Democratic backers said the Senate's action will mean nothing if the Assembly takes no action before adjourning for the year on Thursday. The bill must pass both the Senate and Assembly in the same form and be signed by Gov. Scott Walker, before it would become law.
After Democrats tried to force a vote on the bill in the Assembly, Republican Speaker Robin Vos said he would put it on Thursday's agenda for a vote. He cautioned that changes may be made, though, which could put the bill in jeopardy: The Senate would have to approve the changes on its final session day, April 1, or the bill would die.
Fitzgerald said the Senate would likely take up the bill again on its last session day if the Assembly alters it, depending on what the changes might be.
"If they make any changes they're just playing games," said Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton. "It's a really cruel joke. They can't make this any better than it is."
Democrats, cancer survivors and other advocates who praised the Senate's action kept up the pressure on the Assembly to not leave without also passing it unaltered.
"Today doesn't matter if we don't get it done in the Assembly," said Sen. Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. "For people who are fighting for their lives, some hope is sometimes all that they have. And I don't want to give them false hope."
Ann Marie Frakes, a spokeswoman for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Wisconsin, said advocates who have pushed for the law for years were thankful to senators "who heard their constituents say loud and clear that this bill is critical to ease the burden of cancer."
"Today was a huge victory for cancer patients, but we know that the bill has a significant hurdle to clear with Republican leadership in the Assembly," Frakes said. "We remain hopeful."
It appears that there are enough votes in the Assembly to pass it, but Vos had been using a procedural move to stop a vote forcing it to come up. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which polled all 132 state lawmakers, found that at least 61 of 99 Assembly members supported it. That included all 39 Democrats and at least 22 Republicans.
After the Senate passed the bill, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, interrupted floor debate in that chamber to demand Republicans vote on the proposal immediately.
"There's more than enough votes to pass it," Barca said. "We are messing with people's lives."
Majority Leader Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, the bill's chief sponsor in the Assembly, told Barca that she had to discuss the issue with fellow Republicans to make sure a majority of her caucus supports the bill. Vos then returned to the floor and announced the Assembly's scheduling committee would place the bill on Thursday's calendar.
The proposal would require health plans to provide the same coverage for chemotherapy drugs in pill form, which can be taken at home instead of at the hospital, and the drug's less-expensive intravenous form. Twenty-nine other states have similar laws.
No one spoke out against it during the Senate debate, including the two lawmakers who voted against it — Sens. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Paul Farrow, R-Village of Pewaukee. Both previously said they were concerned about the measure being a mandate on insurance companies. Health insurers that opposed the bill also said it would drive up costs.
Sen. Alberta Darling, the Republican sponsor of the bill and a 10-year cancer survivor, said, "No matter what happens in the Assembly, we're going to be doing the right thing."
Walker said Monday that he didn't know enough about the measure to say whether he would sign it if the Legislature passed it.
His Democratic challenger, former state Commerce Secretary Mary Burke, said Tuesday she supports it and would sign it.
"That's why people buy insurance isn't it?" Burke told reporters when asked about it after a luncheon panel discussion.