MADISON, Wis. - State lawmakers in one house have passed a bill to require insurance companies to cover oral chemotherapy drugs, facing mounting pressure at the end of the legislative session.
The state Senate passed the bill 30-2 Tuesday afternoon, following a previously unscheduled vote on the floor.
"Personally speaking, this is the best day I think the State Senate has had in two years," Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said. "This is going to be a strong bipartisan vote, and we are going to send a clear message to cancer patients across the state of Wisconsin."
"I'm not faulting anybody who votes against this or anybody who had concerns about the bill because we have different points of view," Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said. "But I want to tell you from the bottom of my heart that I'm confident that this is not a mandate, this is parity."
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had taken unusual moves last week, sending the bill to committee and then canceling a hearing to keep the bill from the floor. Fitzgerald said he had members who were concerned about the bill being a mandate of health coverage and the impact it would have on insurance costs. He says he called for a vote after discussion in caucus Tuesday.
"I think it's probably the end of session that got this to a vote," Fitzgerald said. "There's always been a lot of pressure when it comes to health mandates, whether it's cochlear implants or autism or whatever the next issue will be."
Two Republicans voted against the measure, Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee.
But senators were concerned about the future of the bill in the Assembly, where Assembly Speaker Robin Vos had also sent the bill to a second committee for a hearing to make it more difficult for a vote to be pulled to the floor.
"It would be the height of cynicism for this legislature to adjourn leaving these people simply to wonder who to blame and who to hold accountable because the clock ran out," Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, said.
Tuesday afternoon, Assembly Democrats pushed for a vote on the measure over the objections of the Assembly speaker, and there were tense moments on the floor between GOP leaders, including the author of the bill, Assembly Majority Leader Pat Strachota.
"It's something that our side feels extremely strongly on and an idea whose time has come," Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Peter Barca said.
Strachota said she wanted lawmakers to wait until Thursday to consider the bill, and Vos ultimately told lawmakers he would schedule the bill for a vote on the Assembly's last day in session.
"We can continue the debate, which is all about theater and politics, or we can go on and continue with today's calendar knowing that we'll get another opportunity to discuss this on Thursday," Vos said.
Democrats continued to push for a vote, some offering personal testimony of their experiences with cancer.
"When I buried my brother less than six months ago, it was not theater, and let me tell you politics was the furthest thing from my family's mind," Rep. Amy Sue Vruwink, D-Milladore, said. "It should be the furthest thing from your mind today in order to have a backbone and stand up and do what's right for people who are dying."
The Assembly ultimately voted not to take up the oral chemo bill on a party-line 38-58 vote.
Vos said he wants to consider amendments to the bill Thursday. If amended and passed, the bill would have to go back to the Senate for approval before it could go to Gov. Scott Walker. Walker has not said if he would sign it.
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