State Senate Passes Oral Chemotherapy Bill

Bill Has Been Added To Assembly Calendar For Thursday's Session

Sen. Tim Cullen talks about the oral chemotherapy bill on the Senate floor. Photo: Shawn Johnson/WPR.

The state Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would help cancer patients pay for chemotherapy by requiring health insurance companies to offer the same coverage for both oral and intravenous treatment.

The bill had been previously blocked by Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and it looked like GOP leaders would continue using parliamentary tricks to block a vote for the remainder of the session. But Fitzgerald relented, and once the plan came to the floor the Senate voted 30-2 to pass it.

Fitzgerald voted in favor of the bill. Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee, and Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, voted against the measure, and one senator was not present for the vote.

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Supporters of the bill said the vote made it a good day for the Senate and a good day for Wisconsin residents. Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, authored the bill. She’s a breast cancer survivor and cited experts in saying that oral chemotherapy is the wave of the future.

“So in a big way today, we’re bringing our statutes up to speed with what the technology is on this drug,” she said.

Darling also said there has been a lot of constituent involvement in this issue because it’s a personal one for so many people. The bill has also been blocked in the Assembly, but Darling stressed that no matter what the Assembly decides, the Senate’s move to pass the legislation was the right thing to do and that their votes counted.

Fellow supporters of the bill disagreed with Darling, though, about the Assembly action. Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, called the Senate’s action on the bill “hollow,” if the Assembly doesn’t take up the bill and pass it.

“Every member who votes for this bill should publicly plead, demand, insist, that the Assembly take up the bill and adopt it, because the votes are there,” said Jauch. “Our job is not done and cleansed because we vote for it today. Let’s get it done, completely done, Mr. President.”

Later in the Assembly, Minority Leader Peter Barca said that lopsided vote sent a message and that Assembly should follow suit right away.

“It’s of vital importance, said Barca. Peoples’ lives literally depend on this.”

Assembly Majority Leader Pat Strachota, who’s the lead author of the Senate version of the plan, said she wanted it to pass it but that her Republican colleagues needed to talk about it privately first: “I am trying to find a good place where a majority of my caucus can feel comfortable with this bill.”

Democrats tried to force the issue by pulling the bill for a vote immediately. Republicans blocked that vote, with Speaker Robin Vos telling Democrats they were playing politics.

“Today is going to be all about the theater and politics,” said Vos. “It’s not about actually getting something done.”

The charge drew a strong rebuke from Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, who told Republicans that her mom, brother and cousin had all recently battled cancer. “It’s a shame that the Speaker of the state Assembly is playing politics with peoples’ lives,” she said.

Vos did schedule the bill for a vote in the Assembly on Thursday, though he raised the prospect of amending the plan. That could effectively kill the bill if the Senate doesn’t agree to the changes before session ends in early April.