AUGUSTA, Maine — The sponsor of a bill to encourage alternative treatments for Lyme disease — namely, months-long antibiotics regimens — said she’ll try to kill the bill herself if an amendment under consideration to require informed consent paperwork is successful.

“If the [Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee] can’t support the bill without informed consent, I’ll ask them to just vote it ought not to pass,” said Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, who is the primary sponsor of LD 422. “To do this with informed consent could make the situation worse. … If the informed consent piece goes through, I will be asking the governor to veto it.”

Informed consent refers to an exchange between a doctor and a patient, in this case in the form of a written contract, in which the doctor advises the patient of possible risks and benefits of a medical procedure or treatment.

Sanderson’s bill is designed to make it easier and less risky for medical professionals to prescribe long-term antibiotics to patients who have acute, persistent or chronic Lyme disease. Specifically, the bill would prohibit the Board of Licensure in Medicine from disciplining a physician for doing so.

Prescribing long-term antibiotics is not illegal, but the medical community is split on whether it’s a viable or advisable treatment.

However, many infectious disease experts argue patients have been put at serious risk by delays in receiving accurate diagnoses and side effects of long-term antibiotic treatment. Inappropriate use of antibiotics also has been shown to contribute to deadly “superbugs” that have grown resistant to the drugs.

Sanderson said some doctors are unwilling to prescribe antibiotics because medical professionals in other states have encountered problems for doing so. Among other risks in Maine, a long-term antibiotics prescription could conceivably become a factor in a wider-scope investigation into medical malpractice.

Sanderson said Tuesday that her bill is gaining support and that there is no shortage of Lyme sufferers who swear that antibiotics were the only thing that helped. However, there is a movement to amend Sanderson’s bill to include a requirement that doctors acquire written “informed consent” from patients before the prescription.

“I’m all for informed consent,” said Sanderson. “I think a physician should always be explaining how they’re going to treat a patient. But the more I learned about informed consent, the more I realized there could be a big problem here.”

Sanderson said that though the medical community acquires written informed consent for a wide range of procedures — especially invasive procedures — the requirement to do so is not in law except in certain cases. She argues that the paperwork requirement would put an undue burden on physicians who, when it comes to Lyme disease, might go through a range of treatments with patients before finding one that works.

Lyme disease is one of the more difficult diseases to treat because it manifests differently in patients and its symptoms change over time.

Dr. Beatrice Szantyr of Lincoln is a consultant on Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses and has been an adviser for Sanderson on this bill. She said informed consent is a “long-held and much respected” concept in medical practice — and is required in certain limited cases such as before abortions, breast cancer surgery and HIV tests — but putting it into law could create barriers as opposed to erasing them.

“I just can’t see the benefit of putting informed consent in there,” said Szantyr. “It creates a whole new obstacle for treating the person. … It’s just not necessary. If it serves as an obstacle or stumbling block, then it defeats the purpose of this legislation in the first place.”

Sanderson’s bill is scheduled to be the subject of a work session, which could include a committee recommendation, on Thursday.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.