MADISON— Advocates for terminally ill patients in Wisconsin urged state lawmakers Wednesday to approve a bill that would allow the use of potentially life-saving experimental drugs that are still under federal review.
But a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Medical Society, which represents doctors, warned that more quickly green-lighting such risky drugs could give terminally ill patients false hope and increase the chances of "snake oil salesmen" preying on the vulnerable.
"It brings me no joy to be here to say this is not the best idea," lobbyist Mark Grapentine said.
Advocates, including people suffering from terminal illnesses and family members of those who have died, said easing the law will give patients access to drugs pending Food and Drug Administration approval that could help prolong and improve their life.
Tim Wendler, of Pewaukee, and his children have been lobbying for the law both in Wisconsin and nationally. Wendler testified Wednesday before the state Assembly Health Committee, just two weeks after he traveled to the White House and met with Vice President Mike Pence and spoke with members of Congress about the issue.
Wendler's wife, Trickett Wendler, died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, two years ago. He said trying to get his wife into clinical trials to take drugs not yet on the market was "about as disappointing as you would fear." He urged the committee to pass the bill so Wisconsin could join 31 other states that have already enacted so-called "Right to Try" laws.
The bill in Wisconsin has broad bipartisan support, with 17 co-sponsors in the 33-member Senate and 45 out of 99 in the Assembly. Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin, is advocating for a federal law in Congress.
The Wisconsin proposal requires patients seeking the experimental drugs to certify that they have a terminal illness, they've considered other options and have gotten recommended for treatment. It would also extend limited legal liability to doctors, pharmacists and others who participate.
"Right to try is designed for those patients who have run out of options," said the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Pat Snyder, of Wausau.
But Democratic Rep. Lisa Subeck, of Madison, said she had concerns about "snake oil salesmen" who may try to profit off of a drug they know won't help the desperate patient. And Rep. David Murphy, a Republican from Greenville, said he was worried about giving patients false hope.
But Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, broke down in tears recalling former Rep. Tom Larson's fight against cancer. Larson, of Colfax, died on Saturday.
Bernier said the bill would give terminally ill patients hope.