WARWICK, RI — Former Senator William Walaska, 70, a member of the RI Senate for 22 years, a champion of access to off-label medicines for people with terminal illness, died this morning after a second struggle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL).
“The city of Warwick has lost a giant,” said Rep. Camille Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21).
RI Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio noted Walaska’s positive influence on many aspects of life in Rhode Island.
“I am deeply saddened to learn of the loss of my dear friend Bill Walaska. His impact on public policy will benefit Rhode Islanders for many generations to come, particularly in the areas of environmental protection, port development, and improving our economy. His personal story helped to change the law last year to ensure individuals facing terminal illness can try medications for off-label purposes.”
Walaska, who started his career in the RI Senate in 1995, had represented Warwick in Dist. 30 since 2003. He held the seat until losing the September 2016 Democratic primary to Jeanine Calkin.
In April, Walaska was recovering from his second battle with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a rare blood and bone marrow disease that is a type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Chemotherapy was ineffective, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute doctors estimated he had about 90 days to live, according to a release from the Legislative Press Bureau.
Doctors suggested he try the cancer drug Imbruvica, which is already approved by the FDA for some patients with his condition, but is still the subject of some studies. And the improvements began “almost overnight,” he said. Walaska said his cancer shrank, he felt better and gained back about 25 of the pounds he had lost.
Rhode Island law requires insurers to cover “off-label” use for drugs to treat cancer, provided the drug is approved for another use by the FDA and there is peer-reviewed medical literature to back its use for the patient’s condition.
Senator Walaska’s bill (2016-S 2499), sought to extend that law so that it applies not only to cancer patients, but to those with other disabling or life-threatening chronic diseases.
“My own experience has shown me that experimental drugs can save a person’s life. I’m extremely lucky that I was able to access the drug that turned my health around when chemotherapy couldn’t,” said Senator Walaska. “While I appreciate that this opportunity is available to cancer patients like me, why shouldn’t it be available to everyone who is suffering from other serious diseases? We shouldn’t say some life-threatening diseases warrant this coverage but others don’t,” Walaska said last April.
At the time, Walaska said the bill could make a very important difference to some Rhode Islanders’ lives. “I would like to see this bill enacted this year, because no one should be denied the drug that doctors think will save his or her life as it saved mine,” he said.
The bill passed on May 12, 2016, and was signed by Gov. Gina Raimondo June 17, 2016.
“All of us in the Senate will miss his warm smile, his sharp wit and, most of all, his friendship. Our thoughts and prayers are with Marsha, Leslie, Ann Marie, William Jr., and the entire Walaska family during this difficult time,” Ruggerio said.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Bill Walaska, a dedicated legislator, passionate advocate, and someone I was proud to call a friend,” said Congressman Jim Langevin.
“Bill’s leadership and commitment to public service ensured that every constituent he represented had a strong voice in the General Assembly. Whether he was crafting policies to protect our environment or working on initiatives to strengthen the economy, his boundless passion and courage of conviction made him a true champion of the people. In fact, Bill served as my State Senator, and I can say with firsthand knowledge that he truly made a difference in the lives of his constituents and residents across the entire state. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”
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