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Chronic pain sufferers applaud changes to opioid limits law

AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — People taking opioid painkillers for chronic pain are breathing a little easier. A new state law that went into effect Friday is clearing up confusion about how much a patient can legally take.

The law used to require people taking opioids to taper down their daily doses to no more than 100 morphine milligram equivalents, with exceptions only for those under hospice or palliative care in connection with a serious illness.

Doctors knew they could prescribe more for patients treated for cancer or hospice care, but many didn't think they could go over that limit for patients with chronic pain. This new law makes it clear that people with chronic pain can be exempt.

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Brian Rocket, a midcoast lobster wholesaler was one of those patients who was told by his doctor several months ago that he had to taper down his opioid dose to meet a new state law. He suffers from chronic pain from prior injuries and was worried he wouldn't be able to run his business.

With the new law in effect, he says his doctor's now confident that Brian is exempt from that 100-milligram limit and can accept a higher dose.

"I've certainly been reclassified under the palliative care back to where I was on medicine and I can function," he said. "I can live to fight another day."

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Eric Wass, a roofing contractor, who for 20 years has been taking opioids to manage chronic pain, was also forced to taper down and is also now allowed a higher dose. He said it's made all the difference.

"I can work all day and I have a vegetable garden over there now," he said, "so it's giving me my life back because it was being taken away from me."

Both men went so far as to hire a lawyer to sue the state and then testified at public hearings about the need to change the law.

VERIFY: Can people with chronic pain be exempt from Maine's opioid RX limits?

Lawmakers heard those pleas and passed a bill the governor signed — offering relief for those who found themselves dependent on painkillers after having them legally prescribed by their doctors.

"It's not much fun," Wass said. "I'm not proud of it. I don't like it, but I don't have much choice."

Maine DHHS expressed concerns about adding too many exemptions to the law, saying that excessive overprescribing of opioid painkillers is what led to this epidemic that Maine and the nation are now facing.