A bill to protect Maine doctors from license sanctions for prescribing controversial Lyme disease treatments has become law without the governor’s signature.

The bill passed the Maine House and Senate in early June, and became law last week. Gov. Paul LePage did not sign the bill, but he allowed it to become law when he bypassed an opportunity to veto it. Bills become law without the governor’s signature after 10 days.

Maine is the last New England state to pass such a law. Patients have complained that they sometimes have had to leave the state to find doctors willing to prescribe long-term antibiotics to treat chronic Lyme disease.

Kathleen Kilbride, 53, of Falmouth said she’s “thrilled” that the bill has become law. She suffered from years of undiagnosed Lyme disease before taking a six-month course of antibiotics prescribed by a doctor in Boston in 2004.

“Nobody in Maine would treat me. It was a very crazy roadblock,” said Kilbride, who recovered shortly after finishing the treatments.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend long-term antibiotics for chronic Lyme treatment, but acknowledge that some scientists believe the Lyme bacteria can persist in the body for years and say more study is needed.

Lyme disease has soared in Maine, with the state reporting a record 1,388 confirmed cases in 2014, up from 1,376 in 2013. In the early 2000s, the state reported a few hundred cases per year.

The bill’s passage was cheered by advocates for Lyme disease patients, who argued that many doctors, fearing penalties on their licenses, would not prescribe the antibiotics, causing some patients to travel out of state for treatment.

Angela Coulombe of Saco, who says she benefited from long-term antibiotic treatments while recovering from chronic Lyme several years ago, said the law should make her advocacy work more effective. Coulombe started the Lymebuddies.com support group website, and tries to connect patients with doctors willing to treat chronic Lyme. That’s been hard to do, Coulombe said, because doctors have often been unwilling to prescribe the antibiotics because state law did not support the treatments.

“This opens the door for better treatment,” Coulombe said Monday. “Some who may have been inclined to do this were worried about the laws and the stigma. They shouldn’t have to risk their license or their career to help patients.”

But Dr. Phillip Baker, executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation, based in Lyme, Connecticut, said in a statement to the Portland Press Herald that the law is counterproductive. He pointed to four recent National Institutes of Health studies that prove “extended antibiotic therapy” is not beneficial to patients and may be harmful. Long-term antibiotic use can harm biologic agents in the intestinal tract that naturally fight infections, Baker said.

“It is sad and most unfortunate that this bill was passed,” Baker said. “To ignore such evidence to promote an unproven, unsafe therapeutic approach cannot be in the best interests of the public health and the citizens of Maine.”

Other doctors have said that the treatments can be useful in some cases.

The reason such treatments are controversial boils down to when Lyme disease is detected. It’s typically fairly easy to treat when discovered within weeks after a tick bite, with a few weeks of antibiotics required to clear up the infection.

However, the disease often goes undetected early, because many don’t realize they’ve been bitten and the classic “bull’s-eye rash” is not always present.

Untreated Lyme disease can cause persistent symptoms – such as inflammation, fatigue and joint pain – but whether it’s caused by a persistent bacterial infection in deep tissue or the aftereffects of an infection is disputed by scientists. If there are no bacteria present, antibiotics are of no use, doctors say.

Dr. Bea Szantyr, a retired doctor in Lincoln County who has studied Lyme disease, told the Press Herald last year that some research indicates that the Lyme bacterium can “hide out” in deep tissue for years, making the disease difficult to detect and treat. Antibiotic treatments lasting several months may be effective in such cases, she has said.