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Vukmir-Baldwin mashup (copy)

Republican U.S. Senate nominee Leah Vukmir, left, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, right.

Days after state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, accused Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of letting veterans down, Baldwin supporters on Wednesday accused Vukmir of doing the same to cancer patients and people with pre-existing conditions.

A group of Baldwin supporters, which included health care professionals, gathered Wednesday at the state Capitol to criticize Vukmir for her 2014 vote in the state Senate against a bill that required insurers to cover oral chemotherapy. Vukmir is challenging Baldwin to serve in the U.S. Senate.

"As a nurse, I'm shocked a fellow nurse would vote against requiring insurance companies to cover oral chemotherapy. I just cannot condone this," said Amy Bevington, a Madison nurse.

After years of hiccups and delays, the oral chemo bill was approved by lawmakers with bipartisan support in 2014. When he signed it into law, Republican Gov. Scott Walker said it "just makes sense that we make sure this vitally important treatment is affordable for our citizens."

The law requires state-regulated insurers that cover intravenous chemotherapy to also cover oral chemotherapy, and limits co-payment costs for patients to $100 per month. Eighteen state representatives voted against it, but Vukmir was one of just two state senators who opposed it. She said at the time she voted against it because she opposed imposing mandates on insurers.

"As a nurse, Leah wants to make sure her patients and everyone throughout Wisconsin have access to the best healthcare possible and the most aggressive methods to defeat cancer. While Senator Baldwin let patients down by eliminating options for patients, Leah strongly supports making healthcare affordable for those with pre-existing conditions," said Vukmir campaign manager Jess Ward in an email. 

Vukmir, who has previously voiced support for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, has also argued people with pre-existing conditions can remain covered without Obamacare on the books. 

Making a similar argument, House Speaker Paul Ryan has pointed to Wisconsin as a model. For several decades before the Affordable Care Act was implemented, Wisconsin had a high-risk pool that insured people with pre-existing conditions and were unable to find insurance coverage elsewhere. 

Jay A. Gold, a Madison preventative health specialist, said he thinks Vukmir's argument that people with pre-existing conditions would still be covered if Obamacare is repealed is "a lot of bull."

"There was no more important point in the ACA than to keep insurers from denying insurance to people because of pre-existing conditions," Gold said. "For Leah Vukmir to say that she's going to maintain coverage for pre-existing conditions by eliminating the very thing that gave them coverage, it makes no sense."

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The news conference followed a new ad from the Baldwin campaign featuring a Manitowoc woman who says oral chemo was the only chemo available to treat her brain tumor. The woman, Kirsten Jome-Robley, says Vukmir "ought to be ashamed" of her vote.

As Baldwin's campaign goes after Vukmir for her health care positions, Vukmir has spent much of the week criticizing Baldwin for her involvement in the Tomah VA Medical Center scandal. Baldwin drew scrutiny in 2015 after reports indicated her office responded slowly to complaints that patients at the veterans health center had been prescribed large amounts of opioids.

A staffer, fired from her office, later alleged a political cover-up. Complaints filed over the firing and the office's handling of the issue were dismissed by Senate ethics panels, and Baldwin said she wished her office had done more to follow up on complaints it received from a whistleblower. During a town hall meeting last year, Baldwin said she has owned up to mistakes and made changes to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again.

On Monday, Vukmir met with veterans in Franklin. According to a report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, they told Vukmir they were mostly pleased with the care they've received from the Zablocki VA in Milwaukee, but said they have had trouble accessing some benefits. 

Vukmir told reporters at the event that Baldwin's new ad was an effort to distract from the Tomah issue. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.