AUGUSTA, Maine — Two midcoast men who suffer from chronic pain informed state officials on Tuesday that they intend to sue over a new law that limits opiate prescriptions in an effort to stem Maine’s addiction crisis if it isn’t changed.
The threatened lawsuit from lobster wholesaler Brian Rockett of Owls Head and roofer Eric Wass of Rockland could undo a law that their lawyer called an unreasonable violation of federal law. He has argued that it’s unclear whether they’re exempt from the law.
The bill passed the Maine Legislature last year with support from Gov. Paul LePage and the medical community. A spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services said exceptions in the law allow for individualized treatment.
Elements of the law took effect in January, but the biggest piece begins in July, when Mainers will be limited to 100 morphine milligram equivalents of opiate medication such as hydrocodone per day, with exceptions for cancer patients, those in palliative and hospice care and other special circumstances.
Most people above that mark have to be tapered down by July under the limit, one of Maine’s key policy moves last year to address the state’s opiate addiction crisis. Drug overdoses killed 378 people in 2016, setting a record for the third straight year since 2014.
In a Tuesday letter to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services notifying the state of Rockett and Wass’ intent to sue, their lawyer, Patrick Mellor, said the taper has already caused “significant bodily harm” to both men and will make them unable to work and “participate in basic life activities.”
WLBZ reported that the two men have degenerative disc disease. Before the taper, Rockett told the station that he was taking 450 morphine milligram equivalents of medication. In an interview, Mellor said his clients “are not going to be able to function” if this continues.
The men plan to seek an injunction if rules are implemented as proposed by the department, arguing that they are subject to provisions of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which allows people with disabilities to seek reasonable accommodations in policies and procedures.
Final rules for the law are set to be released on Friday and whether Rockett and Wass are subject to exemption is up for debate: In a letter to Maine legislators in February, Mellor wrote that while his clients may qualify for special treatment for palliative care or another exemption, it’s “unclear,” calling for a specific carve-out for people with chronic pain.
“There’s no villains here,” Mellor said. “We’re looking to work with the Department of Health and Human Services and the legislators to get something productive done.”
Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said in a statement that the state “recognizes the insidious nature of chronic pain” and in cases of chronic pain, the palliative exemption “would meet the spirit and letter of the law” and allow for individualized care.