Strictest Opioid Prescribing Law in Nation May be Softened

May 1, 2017

Lawmakers concerned about the plight of residents with chronic pain are considering softening a tough law that puts limits on how much opioid painkillers a doctor can prescribe.

Maine has the nation’s strictest limit for opioid prescriptions, part of a sweeping law that aims to stop doctors from over-prescribing the painkillers. The law passed last year with support from Republican Gov. Paul LePage and Democratic lawmakers.

By July, Maine doctors will not be allowed to prescribe more than 100 milligrams of opioid medication per day to most of their patients.

The law has a broad exception for “palliative care” that the state says protects patients with chronic or acute pain. But Rockland attorney Patrick Mellor says he’s heard from 100 people across Maine who say their doctors have told them they don’t qualify for the exceptions.

Mellor said he is representing two chronic pain patients who have formally notified the state they intend to sue over the opioid prescription law. He said he hopes a legislative committee will “at a minimum” extend the deadline to next year.

That change would let doctors and patients “taper,” or reduce, opioid dosages over a longer period of time than allowed under the current law. Federal guidelines say chronic pain patients who agree to lower doses should be tapered down slowly. Otherwise, experts say, they could experience depression or suicidal tendencies.

“It’s not exaggerating to say that people will die if the legislature doesn’t extend that tapering deadline,” Mellor said.

One of Mellor’s clients is Eric Wass, who owns a small roofing company in Rockland. He said he’s been on narcotics for 20 years for his spine, and said his doctors have long prescribed him enough painkillers to make sure he “can keep working and living his life.”

But now his medication has been cut back and he only has enough “to get me through a half day,” leading to afternoons spent on the couch to avoid pain, Mellor said.

“My ability to work is being taken away from me by you all or whoever else is responsible for this,” he recently told lawmakers.

Democratic Rep. Patricia Hymanson, the committee’s House chair, said she hopes the committee can agree on a solution and better educate the medical community.

“I think that just for humanity’s sake something needs to be done,” she said.

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