Senate passes cancer drugs bill which now heads to Assembly

MADISON (WITI) -- The Wisconsin state Senate on Tuesday, March 18th passed a bill that would make more affordable chemotherapy drugs in pill form available to cancer patients. Though it has passed the Senate, the bill still has several hurdles before it could become law.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly to pass the bill that would help cancer patients pay for their chemotherapy pills -- but the controversy is far from over.

"There has been tremendous pressure from outside of this building to get this before us," Sen. Jennifer Shilling (D-LaCrosse) said.

One week after he blocked the bill from a vote, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald allowed debate on Tuesday, which earned him praise from across the aisle.

"Personally, I think this is the best day the state Senate has had in two years," Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) said.

The controversy over this bill boils down to this:

Most insurance companies treat traditional IV chemotherapy as a medical procedure, and look at oral chemotherapy as a pharmaceutical benefit, so the two forms of chemo are covered differently -- meaning chemo pills are much more expensive.

The bill, which is already law in nearly 30 states would force the insurance companies that already provide chemotherapy to cover oral and IV forms the same way.

"The point is very simple . If someone in this state has cancer, we need to do whatever we can to help them with their treatment," Sen. Erpenbach said.

Opponents of the measure see that as a government mandate on private businesses.

"This is not a Republican/Democrat issue. This is an issue of parity," Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said.

Oral chemo is where the innovation is heading. A quarter of the new cancer drugs being developed are in pill form.

Supporters say the measure could help prolong the lives of cancer patients.

"So for those people, I ask you to give them one more day, one more month, give them life," Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) said.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 30-2.

Several Democrats argued the vote would be hollow without the Assembly also taking action.

"I call on the Assembly to pass this expeditiously, to pass it as quickly as possible. Get it to the governor's desk," Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson said.

In the Assembly, Speaker Robin Vos has blocked a vote so far -- saying the Republicans have not fully discussed it.

"We didn't get into what their bill does, what are the advantages of traditional chemotherapy versus oral chemotherapy, what the mandate would cost. We didn't have any of those discussions -- and that's what we'll do on Thursday," Vos said.

Now all of the attention turns to the Assembly, and that chamber plans to meet one more time this session, with that meeting coming on Thursday.