Gov. Scott Walker said he would sign a Senate bill to require insurance companies to cover oral chemotherapy drugs.
"I’d sign the bill the Senate passed so I’m hopeful that’s the bill that will pass the Assembly,” Walker told reporters in Appleton, according to the Appleton Post-Crescent. "If it passes the same way it passed the Senate I would sign it into law."
Walker was in Appleton attending the Governor’s Conference on Emergency Management and Homeland Security at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel.
The state Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Tuesday to help make chemotherapy drugs in pill form more affordable for cancer patients, but the proposal’s future in the Assembly remains murky.
While the Republican-led Assembly will take up the bill Thursday — its last scheduled floor day — it may undergo changes. That would mean the Senate would need to pass the new version if the bill is to survive.
The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill, which would require health plans to provide the same coverage for chemotherapy drugs in pill form as they do for intravenous chemotherapy drugs, on a bipartisan, 30-2 vote. Only two senators — Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee — voted against the bill. Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkorn, was absent.
“When I talk to the medical school and to researchers around the country, they say, ‘Oral chemo is the wave of the future,’ ” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who is a cancer survivor. “So, in a big way today, we’re bringing our statutes up to speed with what the technology is on this drug.”
But Darling, the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, also said that she thinks the Senate vote was a victory, regardless of what happens in the Assembly.
“No matter what happens in the Assembly, we’re going to be doing the right thing,” she said.
The Senate’s vote took place after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, agreed to allow a vote on the bill after blocking it last week, when he used a rare procedural move to keep it from being debated on the floor. But on Tuesday, Fitzgerald voted in favor of the bill.
The bill then headed to the Assembly, where it faces even more hurdles.
“I call on the Assembly to pass this expeditiously, to pass it as quickly as possible, to get it to the governor’s desk, and sign it,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee. “This is something that helps victims of cancer, helps their families. We should not be standing in the way of it.”
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has also been using a procedural move to stop a vote on the bill.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which polled state lawmakers, found at least 61 of the 99 Assembly members supported it.
After the Senate passed the bill Tuesday, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha tried to force a vote on the bill in the Assembly.
“There’s more than enough votes to pass it,” Barca said.
Majority Leader Pat Strachota, R-West Bend, the lead sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, told Barca that she was “working diligently” on behalf of the bill. But Strachota added that she needs to discuss the issue with her fellow Republicans to make sure the majority of the caucus supports the bill.
Vos accused Democrats of “playing politics” but said the bill would be added to Thursday’s calendar for a vote. Still, he made it clear that changes may be made to the proposal.
Those changes could potentially kill the bill. The Senate would need to approve those changes on its last session day, April 1, because both bodies need to pass an identical version of legislation for it to head to Walker’s desk for his signature.
Fitzgerald said that if the Assembly amends the bill, the Senate would probably take it up on April 1.
Fitzgerald also said that the decision to take it up Tuesday reflected the typical pressure that surfaces at the end of each session on various pieces of legislation. And he said his decision to block the bill last week was to ensure “we did it on our own terms, and obviously we did that today.”
Fitzgerald previously came under fire for blocking the bill, in part because his younger brother, Jeff Fitzgerald, a lobbyist and former Assembly speaker, was working for insurance companies that oppose the bill.
On Tuesday, Democrats applauded Fitzgerald for bringing the bill to the floor, but they criticized Vos for suggesting the bill needed changes.
“Pretending like a compromise is needed is ridiculous,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. “This bill is not new. This bill has bipartisan support.”
A broad coalition of cancer support and health advocacy groups support the measure as a means to make expensive chemotherapy in pill form available to more people.
Opponents, including health insurers, warned that it will drive up costs and amounts to a legislative mandate.
“The governor will review the bill when or if it comes to his desk,” Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said.
Walker’s 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.
— State Journal reporter Matthew DeFour and The Associated Press contributed to this report.